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Inman Column: Beginner Friendly

Regular blog readers will know I've been a columnist for magazines including Café Racer, GQ Italia, Rolling Stone Italy and Bike over the years. Some I packed in, others dry up with editors changed. I still contribute Café Racer in France as I have for about a decade. Every now and then I repost the columns here. This one is from earlier this year, referring to a launch I attended in December 2018. It's still relevant. Type Inman Column in the search bar to see the others

The first motorcycle launch I ever went on was in 1998. It was the introduction of the original Yamaha YZF-R6 in Melbourne, Australia, a good one to start with. It was like a very expensive stag do with a group of strangers. Go karting, strip club, smart restaurants, plus flat out riding up the Great Ocean Road and Phillip Island to ourselves. I crashed the new bike exiting the Southern Loop when I ran out of talent mid-corner. Rossi’s future boss, Lin Jarvis was running the launch. He wasn’t happy. I don’t blame him. It wasn’t my finest moment. I have averaged a launch a year for the next 20 years, including two in 2018. I’m mentioning this, because the latest gave me a very different perspective on part of our Café Racer corner of motorcycling.

An American magazine and website asked me to fly to Lisbon, Portugal, for the debut of the 2019 updates on the Triumph Street Twin and Street Scrambler. Neither are brand new models, but refreshes, as you’ll read elsewhere in the magazine. A few of the journalists I was with attend presentation after presentation, easily more than ten a year for the busiest of them. One in particular was pointing out hotels on Portugal’s Atlantic coast that he had stayed in before on previous launches, but they’re still something of a novelty for me. Nice hotels, meet journalists from around the world, who are generally decent people, and, of course, get to ride new bikes on interesting roads. Portugal with Triumph offered all that, and the surprise of a unique view of the industry that I hadn’t noticed before.

The presentations that are given now, especially this one, mix the facts and figures I have grown to expect with more emotive language that used to be saved for sales brochures and was generally excluded from these press briefings. Referring to the Twins’ new LED rear light as ‘beautiful’ isn’t going to fool anyone into actually thinking it is beautiful. I mean, it’s nice, but it’s not an Egli fuel tank or a Spondon frame or anything really beautiful, so just tell us there’s a new LED taillight and let us describe it. But that wasn’t the epiphany I had on this launch. I don’t ride new bikes anything like as regularly as I used to, and certainly not the variety I used to. So in one way very obvious and specific way I’m not as experienced as the regular road testers. Having said that I’ve ridden a lot of bikes, over a lot of miles in lots of countries, over the last 30 years and my opinions are usually, and fundamentally, pretty close to those of the pure road testers so I’m a pretty safe pair of hands as long as you don’t need a serious track test on the new V4 Panigale.

The part of the launch that made me raise my eyebrows so high I needed a pair of bungee cords to pull them back into place was the realisation that this pair of 900cc Triumphs are regarded, and being actively marketed as entry level beginner’s bikes. As the Triumph representative was working through the details all I could think was, Since when has a 900cc twin been the perfect machine for a novice? When I was a kid a 900cc anything was a beast.

I’ve got to make it clear that I don’t think Triumph are doing anything negligent. The Street Twin is perfectly balanced, the torque assist clutch is featherlight. The presentation spoke of the low standover height meaning lots of potential riders will be able to put both feet on the floor. While both the 2019 twins have 18% more power than the previous model (but only at the very top of the increased 7500rpm rev range), a great deal of the engineering has been tailored to help the bikes appeal to new riders. A rider with very limited experience could easily and comfortably ride the twins.

It is engineered close to perfection, or that’s how it felt on for the two days I rode it. Triumph make excellent motorcycles, and their year-on-year growth is evidence of that, but on the way to perfection they polished the Street Twin to such a blinding shine that they made it bland. And I wasn’t expecting that.

The Street Scrambler, with its mid-level exhaust, has retained enough quirkiness and character, but the Street Twin reminded me of a phrase certain British magazines in the late-1980s and early-1990s used to use: the UJM – the Universal Japanese Motorcycle. These were bikes that were efficient and well engineered, for their day, but had all the charm of wet chipboard. Think the Yamaha XJ600 or Kawasaki GT550. In Triumph’s desire to appeal to the kind of new-to-biking urbanista (with a good credit rating and an image to cultivate) I fear the factory has arrived at the same point. Everything about the new Street Twin is an improvement, except perhaps the tyres, but something has been lost from the equation. It might be the fault of EU regulations, demanding that bikes are quieter, cleaner, safer, but it’s not entirely that.

And it leads me back to the thought, who decided a 900cc twin was the ideal bike for a beginner? Yes, it can be temporarily castrated for those with an A2 licence, the power released once a subsequent test has been passed. I understand it. It makes sense. No buying and selling, find the bike and keep it for longer, but it’s a 900cc twin, for God’s sake! Does it have to be so damn user-friendly?

Is it a result of the instant gratification culture? Riders don’t want to follow the well-worn path of 125, 350, 600 and on? They want to pass their compulsory basic training on a loaner and enter at the apex, on a 900? They want to turn up at their friend’s and see the impressed expressions when they reply, that ‘Yes, it is a 900cc, nearly the same size engine as your hatchback’. Motorcycling is all about image, but that perhaps it’s descended too far into being simply façade this time. I don’t want a 900cc motorcycle to be a friendly hug or an arm around the shoulder. It should be something to be wary of, to build up to.

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