Character

Photos by Paul Phillips.

My old friend Bruce was in a jam. He’d arrived in Knoxville with his KTM 690 Duke in tow, planning to serve as a motorcycle-mounted marshal for the USA Cycling Professional Road National Championship races happening here over the weekend. The Duke, however, suddenly refused to start and the nearest dealership had 215 bikes in line ahead of him for service. Having owned one of these bikes in the past, I had a few ideas about what might be wrong, but because I’m still in the process of getting organized in a new house, my garage was not very functional; I’d have had to hunt for tools and supplies hidden within stacks of boxes and there was little room to work. We also wouldn’t have had time to get any needed replacement parts before he had to start working the time trials. The expedient solution was to loan him my F 800 GT.

Listen to this column as Episode 3 of  The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes; the episode includes a Q&A session about mentally preparing for and recovering from a long motorcycle trip; Mark’s guests are Heather Lea and Dave Sears, who undertook a two-year round-the-world motorcycle journey. Submit your questions to Mark for the podcast by emailing podcast@bmwmoa.org.

Bruce also owns a BMW—an R 1150 RT, just as I also own a KTM—a 990 Super Duke. Naturally, we conversed about the differences and similarities between all these machines. Just as I’d been when first spending time on the GT, Bruce was impressed by its linear, planted, neutral, forgiving, predictable, user-friendly behavior. It was such an easy bike to get along with, he was comfortable on it almost immediately. This was especially important for the upcoming races, since marshals have to ride well ahead of the cyclists, providing them with warnings about any hazards and communicating with race control. They must be able to make tight U-turns quickly and execute other challenging maneuvers while keeping track of activity both in front and behind them. Marshals don’t have time or surplus attention to deal with motorcycle issues. The well-mannered GT turned out to be an excellent bike for this project, as Bruce reported it promptly “disappeared” beneath him on the road.

Although Bruce’s Duke was more familiar to him, it would not have vanished in the same way. That bike demands more of its rider and intrudes into his or her awareness in multiple ways. It’s much pickier about gear selection, it shudders, lugs and protests at low rpm, it’s a bit twitchy and requires more effort to maintain a straight line, etc. In normal riding, these can be endearing qualities. They keep the rider engaged and deliver pleasurable visceral sensations; they’re all part of the fun. They give the bike character. The GT riding experience is far more sterile, its lack of quirks and intrusive demands yields a rather bland interface, independent of its high level of competence. The GT can feel characterless.

As is virtually always the case, the very same quality can be an asset in one context and a liability in another. My GT served Bruce quite well in marshalling the races, and it has certainly provided me with many hours of sublimely effortless riding in the local mountains. Yet both Bruce and I would prefer our KTMs if the goal were to enjoy the bike as much as the ride. It’s hard to savor a motorcycle that completely disappears underneath you.

This is certainly not a BMW vs KTM phenomenon. Bruce extolled the rich character of his RT, and, while I’ve not owned a boxer (yet!), I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the iconic BMW platform and have always appreciated its unique, if not altogether advantageous, features. The same can be said for any number of other bikes, many of which would have made abysmal choices for marshaling a bicycle race on narrow, twisty streets that climb and drop precipitously with serious hazards along their curbs. There are many other reasons to love a motorcycle.

Let’s clarify something before going further. The term “character” has often been pressed into service as a euphemism for dreadful reliability problems, dangerous handling flaws, and weird ergonomics. It’s like the old saw about your upcoming blind date having “a good personality”—this actually suggests they’re going to disappoint in many other ways. The enthusiast press has certainly been guilty of papering over (pun intended) a lot of problems in this way to avoid costly conflict with manufacturers who spent big bucks advertising in their publications. It has also been a way for afficionados of classic models to dismiss criticisms of their beloved relics, impugning the critics as somehow lacking the sophisticated taste necessary to appreciate the aspects in question. Sometimes bikes supposedly dripping with “character” were simply poorly engineered or unreliably assembled; they were just plain bad. This is not how I’m using the term here.

The potentially obnoxious qualities of the Duke mentioned above aren’t actually flaws. That bike is a delight to ride on serpentine roads, and its giant single cylinder provides exhilarating thrust after smoothing out around 3500 rpm. Bruce’s dilemma notwithstanding (probably a delayed-reaction fuel-pump casualty of the previous owner’s ethanol use), those bikes are very well crafted and respectably dependable. They are, however, definitely not for everyone or every situation. A limo is not defective because it doesn’t work well on jeep roads. Specialization may be part of what gives a motorcycle character. The bike “wants” to do some things and not others. Whereas my svelte GT seems happy to carry out most any road-going task, my muscle-bound Super Duke balks at long distances, bad weather and heavy traffic – it wants to roar through mountain passes and enliven its rider with startling acceleration, always asking with a bit of sneer, “C’mon, is that all you’ve got for me?” The GT, like a butler, demurely says, “Very good, sir,” no matter what I ask of it.

Over the past five decades, I’ve owned something like 30 motorcycles and ridden many more. Some were more like my GT, delivering clinical precision and surprise-free performance across multiple domains. Others were more like my Super Duke, rowdy, raw and elemental, even as they did an excellent job at the more circumscribed tasks for which they were designed. Of course, I’ve also ridden some duds, neither competent nor engaging. Excluding the last category, though, which is better—more character or less? The question makes no sense. It would be like asking, “What’s the best car?” Context is a critical factor in making any such judgement. What duties will the bike be asked to perform? What are the rider’s personal preferences? How many bikes will fit in the owner’s garage and budget? Ideally, we’d all have an assortment to choose from for any given ride, with an option suited for each and every situation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us must select one or two to cover all the bases, or rotate through a wider variety of machines in sequence.

My guess is the priority of character in any motorcyclist’s criteria for ownership winds up being a function of that rider’s own personality. This can go in either direction, though, with the motorcycle serving as extension or counterweight. Perhaps the more sedate and conventional among us choose bikes that mirror their sensible utilitarianism, or, Walter Mitty-like, indulge less inhibited fantasies on motorcycles built for derring-do and looking/sounding/feeling every bit the part. Maybe more adventurous souls pick bikes as spicy as their lifestyles, or they live so close to the edge only a machine with the most consistently exacting responses will suffice.

Motorcycles are as diverse as the people who ride them. Good thing!

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.