Back in November I was invited on a flying visit to Goa, India, for Royal Enfield's RiderMania owners meeting. I shuffled a few things around, got the shortest turnaround possible and started out on a 47-hour round trip.
The big attraction for me was to ride the new Himalayan flat trackers. We had a feature lined up for SB39, which had just gone to print, focussing on the S&S Cycle prepared fleet of Himalayans, built with carbon fibre bodywork. I thought the bikes I was lined up to ride were going to be those exact bikes, but instead these were Himalayans modified by RE in India, with less expensive GRP bodywork and 18in rims, so it was a new take, even better.
The idea was for four riders to put on a few demo laps. The other three riders would be:
Johnny Lewis - GNC race winner, regular Sideburn contributor, AFT consultant and the man behind MotoAnatomy.
Paul Young - Royal Enfield R&D test development rider-in-chief, former British road race champ and regular DTRA racer.
Nelly - one of the instructors at India's off-road riding centre, Bigrock Dirtpark and co-organiser of RiderMania's races.
I arrived at the hotel at 4.30am on Friday, the first day of RiderMania, after 23 hours of travel. I told Adrian Sellers, a Royal Enfield industrial and concept designer and one of the internal team pushing Royal Enfield towards flat track, that I would definitely be up early to test ride the Himalayan before the gates opened and allowed the public in. Paul Young, who'd been in India for a week testing ABS system settings at RE's Chennai HQ, was knocking on my door, ringing my phone. Nothing. I woke up three hours too late in a panic.
I ran downstairs in the hotel and found Johnny Lewis. He'd had a tortuous trip from home in Florida and his bag hadn't arrived. Adrian arrived at the hotel, explained I hadn't missed much and rented Johnny and me a Honda moped each. Having only the clothes he stood up in, Johnny used one of the rental company's helmets, with a Sideburn cap as a liner.
We headed up to the event site, 15 minutes ride away at Hill Top, Vagator, very close to the beautiful Arabian Sea coast.
Riders had arrived from all over India, some travelling over 2000km one-way, with many coming from Bangalore, 15 hours ride away. Clubs wore matching T-shirts on the first day before nearly everyone adopted a uniform of the green event T-shirt. They must have sold thousands of them.
Johnny and I weren't allowed to park our mopeds in the main area, because they weren't Royal Enfields. I was ok with that. I like to see a whole park full of the same marque.
What made less was being forced to throw away a plastic bottle on the way into the site. Royal Enfield had the good intention of having people fill up reusable bottles from the dozens of office-style water coolers they had on site, but what was being achieved by throwing away the plastic that had already been bought? I fill up plastic bottles all the time. Anyway, again, I appreciated the thought even if the reality was a little clumsy.
The site was split into five different areas. There was a trader, bar and small stage area; parking and event area with a slow ride and motorcycle assault course; the dirt track scramble and flat track area; huge stage arena and an onsite garage tent for repairs and tune-ups.
What RiderMania called dirt track - what I'd called scrambling - has become a large part of the event with races for different skill levels and bikes. It's like motocross without any jumps and pretty hectic, entertaining with a ear-bleed-volume commentator highlighting the 'calamities'.
There was no flat track riding for us on Friday, but the announcement of the new Royal Enfield Slide School was made on stage, by Adrian Sellers (above), to much enthusiasm from the crowd. With nothing to do, Johnny and I could take in the good vibes.
Royal Enfield are, arguably, the strongest Indian-owned heritage brand and their fans are loyal and enthusiastic. It's seven years since I first went to India and the bike scene has developed, thanks to Royal Enfield. When the company first introduced the Continental GT cafe racer, the majority of the Indian biking population just didn't get it. They were born and bred with Bullets, and while they embraced new tech, it had to look familiar. But the Continental helped pave the way for the 650 Twins and now new styles of bike are being widely adopted, and there were plenty of twins at the event. The Himalayan has also been popular with the domestic market, like riders around the world, buying into the adventure bike dream, even if they don't do much adventuring themselves (it has to be said, every ride in India is a mini-adventure)
There was a custom area, obviously all Royal Enfields, ranging from street trackers to baggers and a mad trike.
That evening we visited the Royal Enfield Cafe. It's a new build, designed to look like a Portuguese Colonial era mansion. There's a cafe and bar, serving great food. Adjacent is a flagship store for the company's ever growing range of riding kit, casual clothing and accessories. The design is great, no doubt influenced by Deus Ex Machina's flagship stores, but with Enfield's unique twists.
In between shop and bar is a display area for custom and historic Enfields.
Again, it was classy, not overdone.
The retail shop is lined with Critall windows. It wouldn't be India without a random dog flaked out.
Headlamp light fitting.
Display made of M5 nuts
Door handle detail
Upstairs at the bar
Stairs decoration. Each 'blob' is a tiny motorcycle
Johnny's kit bag still hadn't arrived, but he'd been given some clean Enfield T-shirts.
The next morning I got chance to have a proper look at the Himalayan Flat Track school bikes. In line with the S&S Cycle bikes we have featured in SB39 there are a surprisingly few modifications.
The most obvious change is the seat unit. It's tall and quite broad, to fit with the existing tank and side panels.
Pipe and end can are swapped.
Lights and screen are ditched.
Front mudguards (both of them) go, but the stock forks and brace remain. Front wheel is relaced and fitted with Timsun tyres (as fitted to Sunday Motors bikes).
I was told Royal Enfield are going to offer all the bolt-ons as a kit for owners to convert their own bikes. We'll keep you posted on that. S&S Cycle are already offering their carbon parts and exhausts. Get Sideburn 39 for details.
I finally got my little taster session, early on Saturday morning. The temporary track felt good, till I strayed 3in off the side onto the soft stuff and slid off. Keep on the track...
In the afternoon we had our play races in front of a big crowd. The Himalayans will make good school bikes. They're quite tall, but not unwieldy. They're not too heavy, neither are they gutless, especially on a short track. They're ideal learner bikes.
We had some really fun races, going high and low, Johnny holding back from whupping us all. The track was damp in some sessions, then bone dry. I felt great until the last session, when the track was marbly, and I slid off, then tried too hard to get back into the show and slid off again. My fault, not the bike's.
We were introduced to the big boss of Royal Enfield, Mr Vinod Dasari, who seemed as pleased with the whole spectacle as everyone else. I think India is going to lap up flat track and I also get the feeling Royal Enfield are going to get much more involved with amateur and pro flat track around the world.
Oh, and Johnny's kit bag never arrived in Goa. He picked it up at the airport on the way home...
>>Find out more about the Royal Enfield Slide School