The Perfect, Perverted Logic of the Ural Dark Force

Ural dark force

 

The Ural is the perfect motorcycle if you want to ride across the frozen surface of the deepest lake in the world. It is also the perfect motorcycle for the casual rider who cherishes Walter-Mitty-esque fantasies of riding across the frozen surface of the deepest lake in the world.

 

American motorcycling always has some element of fantasy in it. Escape to something bigger, faster, more extreme, more dangerous than our everyday lives. For many riders around the world, a motorcycle is simple, efficient, practical transportation, but for American bikers it contains a bit – or sometimes a lot – of indulgence in adventure, real or imagined. We are always a little bit more than ourselves on a motorcycle. This sense of adventure can be romantic, even ennobling, but it can also be fucking ridiculous.

 

The rugged, anachronistic Ural certainly encourages romantic ideation. Forged from rock in a Siberian city-factory and able to go places that make other “adventure” bikes whimper, it is the three-wheeled avatar of The Bear. The bike has a fearlessness that few of us actually achieve in real life. This low-key but massively powerful attitude has always simply emanated from the nature of the bike itself: its clunky detailing and earnest ugliness only enhance its bulldoggish persona.

 

In 2012, Ural started to capitalize on this in a little more self-aware fashion with the Yamal. This bike, named after the Yamal Peninsula north of Siberia (yes, NORTH of SIBERIA), whose name means something like, “The end of time and frozen death. Turn back now,” featured a Flying-Tigers sharkmouth paint job and a paddle. This tongue-in-cheek accessory included humorous survival instructions that what with “Abandon all hope,” and which, come to think of it, just might not be ironic.

yamal-4

I do take some delight in the possibility that Ural actually wants their customers to perish beneath the Arctic Ocean. We are also still left wondering whether the sidecar could actually float, and are waiting for Ural to send us one to test in Lake Erie.

 

The Yamal ramped up the fantasy element, but at least it was still fantasy within the actual universe. The Ural Dark Force takes dadbiker fantasy into the universe of Star Wars, a movie franchise for children which makes billions off of middle-aged men. The man-child – that stunted homunculus which dominates male culture in the US – cannot get enough of Star Wars in the form of every goddamn product known to man. A clever Star Wars tie-in can be a make-or-break difference for a company. Just ask Lego.

side

A Star Wars themed motorcycle was sadly inevitable. This particular manifestation, however, was a bit of a surprise. Ural is building only 25 Dark Forces, which definitely makes it one of your more exclusive “special edition” bikes. And what did they do to the base Ural to create this special edition? They painted it black. That is basically the full features-and-benefits list. It is shiny black, like a Dark thing, get it? The sidecar looks a little like Darth Vader’s codpiece.

saber

Oh, and it also has a pretend Light Saber, so you can… do what? Walk into a bar and pretend to cut some alien’s arm off?

 

But here is the real genius of the Ural Dark Force. Nowhere does it say Star Wars or have any Star Wars related graphics. There isn’t the logo of the Empire on the tank (which would’ve been kinda cool), or an outline of Vader’s mask, or the Star Wars name or logo anywhere. Even the name “Dark Force” is a little vague – they don’t actually say “Dark SIDE OF THE Force.” It’s easy to forget: is it “Dark Special”? “Dark Custom”? If it weren’t for the logo typeface (which isn’t quite the Star Wars typeface), you might not make the connection. Apparently, the only thing Ural actually paid to license was the word “Light Saber.” Everything else just hints around it.

 

This is like all those ads for nachos and plasma TVs leading up to the Super Bowl that refer to “The Big Game” because they can’t say “Super Bowl.” It’s actually like when you were a little kid and you asked for Legos for Christmas and you got Tente. Ugh.

 

So when it comes to draping a tough motorcycle in the trappings of boyhood playtime, the Dark Force isn’t even the genuine fantasy. It’s a sham of a fantasy. How about instead of buying into this preposterousness, just get out and ride far, far away and let the real romance of riding be your inspiration.
What could’ve saved this bike? Instead of calling it the “Dark Force,” call it the “Dark Helmet.” Have a plaid button on the dash marked “Ludicrous Speed.” And painted across the back of the sidecar, “May the Schwartz be with you.”

That, I would buy.

 

BMW Introduces First Riderless Motorcycle

Since 1923, BMW has been a leading innovator in motorcycle technology. Their advances include ABS, ride-by-wire, and multi-mode rider control, as well as a variety of weird suspension contraptions. In the 1930s and 40s, BMW was a world leader in the technology of mounting .50-cal. machine guns to sidecars.

 

k1600gtfl 2

The BMW K1600FL

Not resting on their laurels, BMW sees their leadership role as just taking off. Now they hope to usher in a whole new world of motorcycling with the first commercial riderless motorcycle, the K1600FL. The FL stands for “Fahrerlos” (German for “Riderless”), and this model promises unprecedented performance, reliability, safety, and politeness on the road. BMW’s chief of automation engineering Jürgen Narrenschiff explains the concept behind this machine:

 

“This begins with an understanding of the rider and machine as one system working together. It is the interaction of rider and machine that creates the overall riding and performance experience. Once we see this as one whole, we can ask the question, what is the weakest part in this system? Clearly, it is the human part. So, now we must simply eliminate the weakest part.”

 

BMW’s research showed that the human part is not only responsible for a majority of accidents, but also for poor performance.

 

“The human part’s on-board computer is a very old model, and it functions very poorly when trying to calculate things like the correct entry speed for a curve or how fast an oncoming car is moving. It reacts too slow to emergencies, then overreacts, often making the situation worse. It can also completely shut down when it encounters something as simple as a scantily-clad attractive pedestrian. Let’s face it, the human part’s computer was not properly design for motorcycle performance.”

 

The K1600FL’s computer, by contrast, can track and predict the motion of every object within its view, can factor in tire wear and inflation, road surface and banking, humidity, traffic densitiy, grade and incline, and sunspot activity when entering turns. This bike will hit the perfect apex every time. Eliminating the human part also reduces the weight of the machine by up to 250lbs. of “useless blubber,” according to Narrenschiff.

 

The riderless machine will also be an advantage to busy motorcycle owners who find they just don’t have as much time as they would like to take the bike out on the open road. The K1600FL can be programmed to go on scenic mountain rides autonomously while the owner is at work, at home, or even asleep. This means more pure road time with less effort for the owner. The machine will even take selfies and post updates to the owner’s social media sites. With the voicelink app, an owner who is stressed out at work can touch one button and say, “Motorcycle, take a run down to the lake,” and the motorcycle will take care of the rest.

 

k1600gtfl 3

The K1600FL enjoys a ride down the coast

“We have finally identified what is holding back the future of optimal motorcycle performance, and we have removed it from the system. This is a revolution for motorcycling.”

k1600gtfl 1

What is “Neo-Retro”?

The first sentence of every description of the Yamaha XSR 900 must include the phrase “neo-retro,” and this one is no exception. It seems to be a somehow apt descriptor, but I don’t think any of us really know exactly what we mean when we say, write, or read it. Is it really a word? It is two prefixes (prefices?) linked together without a root. It is certainly an oxymoron, although “neo-paleo” would be a more perfect diametric pairing. Personally, I would be very excited to see a neo-paleo bike. Something made of meat.

 

I suppose we must conceded that “neo-retro” is a word, inasmuch as people are using it and somehow investing it with some meaning. Neologisms like this often take some time to find their proper semantic place, and this one seems to be at that crisis point where it either hones itself to something useful or just become another useless filler word. Time to drill into that word and extract the real meaning so that we all stop throwing it around so promiscuously.

 

First, let’s make some important exlusions to be clear what “neo-retro” is not. Some would say that “neo-retro” means a technically and mechanically modern machine that wears styling taken from the past, like the new Bonnevilles or Moto-Guzzis. But no, that is simply “retro.” “Neo-retro” must reinterpret. It is Post-Modernist, not Classicist.

 

It is also not the uninterrupted making of the same thing for decades. No-one refers to Harleys as “neo-retro” or even “retro.” They are simply Harleys. Indian Chiefs might be “retro,” because there is a discontinuity between the current machine and the precedent. You have to leave home in order to enjoy homesickness. You can’t be nostalgic for something that’s just always been there and never left. Oddly, people often refer to Royal Enfield as “retro,” which is wrong due to this Continuity Exemption. I think people call Royal Enfields “retro” because they themselves have re-discovered (or just discovered) them, and therefore what’s old is new to them, whereas in fact what’s old is simply old. (The Contintal GT would be an exception to the Exemption, and thus could rightly be called “retro.”)

 

Got it?

 

OK, let’s look at the latest exemplar of “neo-retro”: the Yamaha XSR 900:

2016-01-10 xsr900_1

 

What about this design is retro? What clues tie this bike to, say, the 1970s? Apart from the round headlamp and the optional bumblebee livery, not a damned thing. We could go through the bike piece by piece by piece and not find anything that ties this bike to the past. Look at it: the tank? The frame? The engine? Even the fenders? Anything? OK, maybe the tank badge. The name, certainly, is a reference to the venerated XS 650, a prince among UJMs, but that’s it.

2016-01-10 xsr900_2

 

Every single thing about this design is modern. It doesn’t even look like what someone in the 1970s would imagine a futuristic bike would look like – they would probably assume a bike of the future would be some kind of Craig Vetter Streamliner deal.

 

2016-01-10 xsr900_3

Perhaps the only truly retro thing about this image is the clothing of the rider.

 

Let’s take another example: the BMW R Nine T:

2016-01-10 R9T

 

Of course this bike has the “classic” BMW Boxer engine, but that is not retro – that’s merely a staple powerplant that is still in BMW’s regular lineup. (Would you call the R1200RT “retro”?) Again, there is a round headlamp, but surely that can’t be it? Everything on this bike is thoroughly up to date, both technically and aesthetically. The trellis frame, the brakes, wheels, seat, components, suspension, lines, curves, forms – it’s all neo, and where’s the retro?

 

Contrast this with the new new Bonnevilles, which carefully and knowingly extract details and proportions from old bikes to create their new composition. There are little Easter eggs for connoisseurs. They are modern, but they make aesthetic allusions with the precision of a McKim, Mead, and White, and no-one would question that the genre of these bikes is “retro.”

 

Yet we are compelled to describe the XSR 900 and the R nine T (and let’s throw in the Honda CB1100) as “neo-retro.” We almost can’t help ourselves. Why?

 

The truth is, when we look for historiated styling cues, we are looking at the wrong thing. What’s retro about these bikes is not the design details or specific allusions to past models. In fact, it’s not styling at all: it’s design at a deeper level.

 

The “retro” in these bikes is an attitude of simplicity. Unadorned, bullshit-free. Unassuming, but direct and tough. It’s a recognition that many of the products (not just bikes) that we use every day have become encrusted with features, complications, and upgrades that stand between us and the pure enjoyment of the object. It is the opposite of the plastic engine cover under the hood of your Audi. It’s the same ethos as the naked bikes taken in a slightly different direction.

 

Our nostalgia for older bikes is closely tied to how much fun we had on them. It seemed that the bikes had character. That character was rooted in the direct experience with the machine, unintermediated by other amenities. Now we are being offered bikes that present that kind of character without the flip side of those simpler bikes – unreliability. We are seeing technology in the service of a better experience, rather than tech for its own sake.

 

It’s also a reminder that a motorcycle does not have to be either a sportbike or a cruiser. It can just be a bike. And you don’t have to choose between being a pirate or a squid. You can just be a biker.

 

There was no better time, when things were simpler, people were more honest, and beer was free. In that sense, nostalgia is naïve. But there were great ideas and moments of delight in our collective youth that are worth remembering. If “neo-retro” brings us fun, honest bikes that look good and ride great, we are all for it.

2016: A Sneak Peek

 

2016-01-03 BANNER

(not a motorcycle)

 

2016 promises to be the best moto year yet.  We don’t have full details yet, but here is a sneak peek at what 2016 will offer:

 

2016 will be 12lbs. lighter than 2015 and have 15% more torque – that’s more grunt and go than any year this decade.  To manage that power, this year will also have improved brakes and upgraded suspension.  Combined with better ground clearance and a higher-revving mill, 2016 looks to be a hell of a ride.

 

For optimal handling, 2016 will have three centers of gravity: one low, one high, and one “floating” CG that will be continuously controlled by the onboard computer.  The rider can select between four modes for the floating center of gravity: “Cruising,” “Bopping,” “Hooning,” and “Flay.”  It will also feature the first on-the-fly adjustable wheelbase, which will let you convert from a cruiser to a sport-naked with just the touch of seven buttons.

 

The riding position has been redesigned by Swedish furniture craftsmen, and the “rider’s triangle” has been upgraded to a “rider’s pentagon” with the addition of knee and elbow pegs.  The passenger handlebars are also a bold new touch.

 

2016’s ride-by-helmet interface will provide direct input from the rider’s brain to the onboard computer.  You just have to remember to think in Russian.  Rider’s thoughts will become property of the manufacturer under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and may not be reproduced by the rider.

 

This year will be available in seven all-new special edition paint schemes, including three with flames.  Actual flames.  Be careful.  There will also be a Dead Celebrity special edition, but it has not yet been announced which dead celebrity it will be.  We are hoping for Harpo Marx.

 

For styling, 2016 has definitely gone the naked neo-retro-chopper/bobber-scrambler-tracker-hillclimb-wall-of-death route.  The styling says, “heritage,” but also says, “what the hell am I doing?”

 

Optional features include a chrome seat and calfskin gas tank, fully opaque windscreen, carbon-fiber tires, and right-side kickstand.  The ultimate add-on for 2016 will be the dual side cars, which are mounted on both sides of the machine for that P-38 look.  Little decorative propellers for the noses of the sidecars are also available.

 

Will 2016 be the ultimate ride?  With so much innovation, there will certainly be some bugs to work out, but we think this years looks like it will be a real blast and we can’t wait to get it on the street.

The New New Bonnevilles: A Closer Look

592C9BF9BC5047DDA8B3BCB9C228C762 The Bonneville is finally going to earn its keep. For more than a decade, it has gotten by as the backbone of the Triumph brand solely on looks and romance. Those are powerful motivators for sentimental folk like bikers, but let’s be honest, the name “Bonneville” implies speed (preposterous Pontiacs aside), and it’s a little silly to have a “214” special edition of a bike than can barely break half that speed downhill.

Bonneville and its variants have been beloved because we look good and feel good on them. They have been fun, accessible, affordable, and nostalgic without being corny or phony. (Nostalgia is safe when used as prescribed, but overuse can lead to misguided nonsense like endorsements by Zombie Steve McQueen.) The Bonneville line-up has always had a winning smile that it’s hard to say no to. Triumph have taken that strategy as far as it could go, and now they have come out with guns drawn. We’re in a whole different class now. She just walked out on the dance floor, and all we can say is, “My, how you’ve grown!”

I’m going to say what we were all thinking: thank god they didn’t fuck it up. Making major changes to something so simple and beloved is very dicey. This could have gone wrong in so many ways. But have you ever heard so much gushing over a bike nobody has even ridden yet? It’s even buzzing in non-moto circles. Did you, like me, get texts from your non-biker friends & relations asking about this?

Naturally, all the coverage is reciting the numbers & specs on these bikes, and those numbers are critical to what this line-up is about, but you can see them in any of the links above. (Although we still don’t have two key numbers: peak horsepower and MSRP.) The numbers are what will make this bike a serious competitor for the BMW RnineT, Ducati Scrambler and some Monsters, H-D Sportster 1200, Yamaha XJR 1300, and many other seriously-sporty-but-not-superbike retro-nakeds (1200cc seems to be a direct shot at H-D and Ducati. Can you imagine swiping at both of those in one punch?) We wouldn’t be adding much to the conversation repeat the specs yet again here, so instead, per our wont, we will take a close critical look at some aesthetic details and how they relate to the whole.

Let us begin by confessing: This is a gorgeous piece of machinery:

2E74F3A854CF473D9AEFD5E5D2B3D2EFWhen it’s good, British motor design is outstanding.

This is a design that is unified around speed, yes, but also elegance. The composition hangs together off the top frame line, which is tilted forward in a kinetic gesture. The proportions are compact and the curves taut. It is mature but virile. Many bikes have great design ideas in them, but it is rare that they all support a single parti so well together. The XJR1300 seems to have parts of seven different cool bikes in it. The Harley Fat Boy, on the other hand, love it or hate it, is most emphatically and unapologetically what it is.

One smart move Triumph made is making the Thruxton the king of the line-up instead of the T120. The Thruxton was always the sportier-but-its-still-not-really-sporty step-sister. It was basically the Bonnie with lower handlebars, and it looked faster than it was. Owners were practically obliged to find ways to get more zaft out of it, and of course it was also limited by its suspension. No more! It is out of the shadow of its dowdy sisters.

An important visual signal of this distinction is that the Thruxton has a different tank. The squarer, flatter more-70s, less-50s tank is distinctive, and its lower, longer proportion just make the whole machine that much leaner and meaner. They didn’t take it too far, though: those 70s tanks were square enough to lose all character. Here Triumph’s stylists used that precedent as an inspiration, not a template, and that is always the correct way to treat your historical antecedents.

Let us continue the aesthetic tour of this bike’s intimates at the tires. (Sorry – tyres.) It has sticky, sporty Pirellis, but not just any Pirellis. Did you notice that these are Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tyres? These were developed for the venerated and all-too-short-lived Ducati SportClassics, which were an epitome of the best that neo-retro styling can be. The new Bonnies have been compared to the SportClassics, and this choice of tyre could not be a more direct and specific allusion. It’s like finding the helmet of the last guy who died climbing this mountain and wearing it while you announce your own summit attempt. Subtle, but ballsy, Triumph.

BDD30458BE8442DBA406A9C34A294ABB

I would like now to contemplate the taillight, because that is indeed the kind of guy I am. The taillight on the Bonneville had always been this ugly, vexing blot on an otherwise handsome design. Like if David Niven wore a tacky plastic boutonniere on the lapel of his tuxedo. The alien-head orb taillight was an inexplicable hangover from the Legend/Thunderbird/Adventurer bikes of the 90s. No-one knows why they carried over this one design element onto an otherwise entirely new machine. It was the first thing most Bonneville owners changed, usually to a Lucas-copy. The new bikes have finally done the right thing: an updated interpretation (not copy!) of the Lucas aesthetic. Nice curve to the top, angled sides. A smart reference if you get the joke, but still sharp if you don’t. Is the LED ring light another allusion to the BSA-style bullet taillight? I choose to believe it is.

Thruxton_R_Detail_Rear_Light_CROP

There are many other design moments to enjoy, such as the reference to the ignition points cover on the starboard engine casing, the very tidy branding graphics on the entire line-up, the tight bar-end mirrors, and of course all the quality components (e.g. brakes, forks, shocks) that signal to any connoisseur what class of bike this is. They have also placed a small brand logo in the middle of the headlamp, which everyone seems to be doing all of a sudden. Not sure what’s driving that.

A6CA8B8D6308498FBF0BEFB956F114D5

It is also commendable that Triumph are keeping and supporting (and will be shamelessly capitalizing on) one of the Bonneville class’ best features: its customizability. We will be flooded with gadgets, and surely aftermarket manufacturers will be quick to add their own.

C3BB5136001A439AB17D1DEBE1E4504BMonza, baby.

This is of course no all-out street fighter. It’s not a best, fastest, most-torque, most-horsepower anything. What it is is a very sharp, sophisticated-looking, covetable motorbike with a big enough performance envelope for any but the highest-end riders to get everything they want out of it. It is, simply, what we all always thought these bikes should be.

D51763261E8D424CAC398FC9BDC9F629

Good Shop Practice #14: Steady On

You imagine that your work should be a smooth flow of operations: confident, swift, and deft. At the least, you feel like you should always be moving toward that adept ideal. In reality, although you are learning and improving, you are also expanding your range of operations and challenges. You are still making mistakes. You are still re-doing things, getting frustrated with yourself. Sometimes even in simple operations you have done many times, you might skip a step or mix up some bolts. You might even break something. Steady on. This, too, is part of it, but it only becomes a deterrent and frustration if you allow it. By focusing on the kind of mechanic you artificially think you “should” be instead of being the imperfect ape you are, you create a conflict between desire and reality and thereby suffer. Steady on.

Cleveland Cyclewerks Unveils New Misfit

DSC_0089

In the heart of Cleveland’s rough-but-hip Near West Side is the headquarters of the pan-global motorcycle empire that is Cleveland Cyclewerks. It’s an empire built on the idea that people might want to own fun, well-designed, reliable transportation that is extremely affordable – the Schreckengostian idea that good design can be for everyone.

DSC_0079Like in a lot of cities, Cleveland’s old industrial spaces are being repurposed as lofts, boutiques, foodie pop-up venues, and hipster happenings, but CCW has repurposed an old industrial space as. . .  a new industrial space. It’s a bare-bones factory yard that reflects their hands-on, entrepreneurial approach to design. This is where Ace, Heist, and Misfit owners gathered this weekend for a Cyclewerks Homecoming. It says a lot about the company and the rapidly growing loyalty of their riders that this event was rider-initiated, not invented by the marketing department. The crowd was fun, unpretentious, and serious about bikes – very Cleveland. Their loyalty was rewarded Saturday with the unveiling of the new Misfit.

Probably the most recognizable CCW bike is the retro-bobber Heist, but the the sleeper fun-bomb is the little cafe racer Misfit. The original Misfit was styled in homage to the mid-60s Ducati 250 GP, particularly the tank shape. This is a very ‘inside’ styling reference, probably lost on 90% of buyers, and it is especially subtle in the stock black paint. Still, the design stands on its own even if it was upstaged a bit by its showier brothers the Heist and the Ace (sorry – I can’t bring myself to write “tha”).

DSC_0109

No more. The new Misfit has come into its own and looks more forward than back.

DSC_0114While still true to its cafe forebears, the lines are tighter, keener, and more aggressive. The same basic bike form has an entirely new impression and attitude.

DSC_0118The model unveiled Saturday was Hot-Wheels green, which will be a standard color (perhaps taking a swipe at Moto Guzzi?).

DSC_0134

The attention to detail in things like the taillight, turn signals, and instruments give the impression of a much more expensive bike.

DSC_0116

But the styling is only the introduction. Improved front suspension, a stiffer frame, better brakes, and bigger wheels all promise a bigger riding envelope and better feel. Maybe most exciting thing is that club racing is planned for next year. What could be more fun than barnstorming a track on a solid little 250 zoomer?

They kept the seat height low, and of course the weight is light. This is a low barrier-to-entry bike. This would be a perfect first bike that you don’t get rid of even if you get another bike. In fact, I think this will be my official go-to recommendation for the legions of earnest fledglings coming to me for advice on a first new bike.

DSC_0094

One look at the parking lot outside the factory on Friday would tell you that CCW owners tend to be tweakers, tuners, and modders, and all their bikes lend themselves to easy personalization.

DSC_0100I know they are going to have a lot of fun with the new Misfit.

DSC_0074