So; 2020 is finally over. I don’t think there has ever been a year that so many people all over the world have looked forward to seeing the back of. As motorcyclists in the UK, we snatched a scant few weeks of good riding between various lockdowns, but European trips were largely cancelled. The smart ones with flexible schedules shot off to Scotland at the earliest opportunity, but the weather was typically appalling by that point in the summer. In the end I escaped the claustrophobia of my own four walls on four wheels, not two.
BoyMeetsBike.com saw traffic more than double as bored bikers headed online for their motorcycling fix, but I was generally stuck at home and was able to provide little in the way of new content. With a vaccine on the horizon and hopes of a return to normality for 2021, has the global pandemic permanently changed motorcycling in any way?
Looking over my notes from the last few weeks’ sustained barrage of press-releases a few trends do start to emerge. For one thing, we might be about to see history repeat itself as the complacent European and Japanese brands find themselves tripping over more affordable and increasingly well-spec’ed offerings from India and China. The flood of cheap and nasty 125s has abated, with quality and features improving as product ranges expand up the capacity ladder.
At the same time, we’re seeing traditionally off-road-exclusive brands like Fantic bring genuinely intriguing road-legal offerings to market. I don’t quite think we’re going to see Triumph once again swept aside in a wave of better and cheaper machinery as they were in the 70’s. The more established brands do seem to have learnt their lessons from history. Manufacturers with existing small-capacity programmes are expanding them; those without are scrambling to extend their large-capacity-focused ranges downwards. Still, competition is going to be fierce, and some of the established businesses may not be able to survive on the more meagre profit margins that will be on offer once traditional motorcyclists stop buying £20,000 toys in the numbers they’ve become accustomed to.
As old age begins to bite, motorcycling’s traditional bulk-buyers are increasingly looking for smaller and lighter machines that will be less likely to overwhelm them at the next stop light. The few young riders that are fighting their way into the sport despite all the roadblocks don’t have any loyalty to the old brands, and are just as likely to consider a Zontes as they are a Yamaha. They also don’t know or care which brands are genuinely European and which are simply classic brands slapped on Chinese-made hardware. A long-time motorcyclist might be able to tell the difference between an unbranded brake calliper and a top-shelf Brembo item, but they’ll still struggle to convince a cash-strapped twenty-something that such jewellery is worth five times the price.
All of this means that I’ll be watching how the industry reacts and changes over the next couple of years with great interest, and that the list of bikes I’m looking forward to riding in 2021 has never been more diverse. Let’s take a look, shall we?
By sheer number of interesting new models, the Japanese brand takes the top spot. That being said, like many of their established competitors, we’re mostly talking about small capacity bumps (CRF300L, Forza 350/Forza 750) and light styling work (NC750X) as older engines are reworked to meet the new Euro5 emissions regulations that come into force this January. We may no longer be part of the EU, but the UK market isn’t anywhere near big enough to justify the development costs of its own models, so we get what Europe gets. The good news is that in most cases these emissions-related tweaks also result in more power and, in a few surprising, but very welcome cases, less weight.
But wow, talk about blindsided – I did not see either the Trail 125 or CMX1100 Rebel coming, thought perhaps I should have. In the same way that the original Trail 90 was derived from the the C90 of the time, it must have been relatively cheap and easy to repurpose and restyle the current Cub platform to create this intriguing new off-road focused model. The low-range gearbox its ancestor featured may be missing, but the Trail 125 makes up for it with more power. And while ground clearance improvements may be marginal, that rear-mounted snorkel and light weight should mean you can take this thing damn near anywhere – as long as you’re not in a hurry. The only slightly worrying thing is that Honda UK has been strangely silent on UK/European pricing and availability, with all the press focused on the US launch. Here’s hoping we’re not going to miss out like we did with the CTX700…
The Rebel 1100 is interesting if only because it shows that Honda are serious about extending their platform-sharing approach to every engine in their range. Shoehorning the latest Africa Twin‘s 1.1-litre parallel twin engine complete with DCT gearbox into their existing CMX500 Rebel chassis caught everyone by surprise, but now adds credence to the rumours of a similarly-powered CB1100X sports-tourer. I’ve got a soft spot for feet-forward cruisers, but an even softer spot for do-everything road bikes that combine reasonable power with all-day comfort and hard luggage. Add in Honda’s excellent six-speed dual-clutch transmission, and you’ve got a potential 2022 bike I’d ride tomorrow.
Triumph‘s new entries are notable, if not necessarily terribly compelling. The brand announced it would cut a quarter of its UK workforce during the summer, and the pressure was presumably on to put some new metal in dealers without spending any siginficant sums on development. The internet (and some personal friends) collectively lost their minds over the Trident 660, and as an avowed previous-generation Street Triple fan they assumed I would be all over it. But I’m afraid that I may be as cynical about this machine as I suspect Triumph‘s product planners were. Detuning and sleeving down their current 765cc three-cylinder engine and slotting it into a cheaper steel-tube chassis with even cheaper brakes and suspension is a price-point play, plain and simple.
The retro styling is very fashionable right now, and the £7k price is extremely competitive, but it’s very telling that journalists coming back from the launch have been very polite and noncommital about the performance. I’m sure it’s fine, and if you really want a new middleweight naked that looks a little less futuristic than the current alternatives then, by all means, go right ahead. But one day you’ll pull up next to a more powerful, lighter, better-specced 675cc Street Triple and I suspect that you may have some regrets. Low-mileage Street Triples from that era can be had for less than half the price of a new Trident 660, and won’t really depreciate much further. And if your heart is truly set on that single round headlight, well, there are kits you can buy for the Street Triple that’ll do that for you too.
Then we have the ‘new’ Triumph Tiger Sport 850. The name alone had my attention, as I pictured a smaller, lighter, more modern version of the practically-neolithic 1050cc-engined Tiger Sport. I imagined a slick half-fairing, aerodynamic hard luggage, and a full suite of touring creature comforts. Instead, some bright spark has put new stickers on the base-model Tiger 900 and taken 10bhp out of the engine. Hilariously, none of the marketing material suggests any actual mechanical changes, implying that said power cut was achieved solely through software changes. I daresay a Power Commander and some dyno time could get it all back just as easily.
If ever there was a motorcycle designed by the marketing department, this was it. The base-spec Tigers probably weren’t selling terribly well, as no-one walks into a dealer and then signs up for a fractionally cheaper PCP plan in exchange for losing most of the features that made the bike so compelling in the first place. My read on such models is that they exist purely to allow the advertisers to quote unrealistic starting prices in their ad copy, and are rarely actually purchased by anyone (I’m looking at you, BMW). My guess is that no-one was buying base-spec Tigers, but Triumph didn’t want to lose the opportunity to write “starting from £9,300!” in their ad copy. This is their attempt to bring in some some buyers who can’t convince themselves to accept the stripped-back option, but could live with it if they convinced themselves that it was actually the “sporty” option. It’s the most cynical thing I’ve seen a manufacturer do in a long time, and suggests that Triumph are really feeling the pressure.
Ducati are a brand I usually steer well clear of, because their line-up already contains too many things to tempt me. Admittedly, the purchase prices and running costs can usually throw a bucket of ice water on any serious notions of ownership. In the meantime, the brand is slowly but surely shedding everything that kept it rooted to the past, and not everyone is happy. Traditionalists are losing their minds over the fact that the new Monster abandons not only its iconic steel trellis frame but also the stylish single-sided swingarm they know and love. They complain that the reinvented version looks too much like the Japanese competition, which is deeply ironic if you know your motorcycling history. But I strongly suspect that folks old enough to lament the loss of these ‘defining’ features haven’t bought a Monster in years – they’ve been buying and riding far more powerful, expensive motorcycles, and were never the target customer anyway. Younger riders who choose Ducati for their £10k naked bike aren’t likely to care how true to the spirit of the original M900 their new bike is. But they will probably appreciate the significant weight savings brought by that new extruded aluminium frame.
It will be interesting to see how those older, more affluent riders react to the new Multistrada V4. If moving away from the classic L-twin and it’s expensive-to-service cambelts wasn’t bad enough, Ducati surprised the entire motorcycle world late in 2020 by announcing that their V4 Granturismo engine would also leave behind desmodromic valve actuation in favour of the same spring-based system that every other engine manufacturer in the world has been using for decades. Modern engineering means that the advantages of using separate followers to close as well as open the valves of a four-stroke engine have fallen away. And while tradition might have been reason enough to persist until now, switching to a mechanically-simpler system has also allowed them to double the valve-check service interval to a staggering 36,000 miles.
Kawasaki have been embarrassing the competition for years with their 26,000 mile intervals, and Triumph‘s more recent large-capacity engines aren’t bad at 20k miles. But I’m willing to bet that plenty of Multistrada owners won’t ever cover 36,000 miles in the entire time they own the bike, trading in as many do every three years under their PCP agreements. Those owners will never actually pay for a valve check ever again. For people like me who keep their bikes for years and rack up six-figure mileages, this means significantly reduced servicing costs over the life of the bike. Throw in world-first features like adaptive cruise control and the kind of refinement and attention to detail that Audi’s stewardship has instilled over the Italian brand’s recent history and we’re left with a seriously compelling do-it-all motorcycle.
Tour, commute, embarrass sportsbike riders at trackdays…I bet you really could do it all, and perhaps even without the traditional flakiness and servicing expenses for which Italian motorcycles have been known in the past. The only two flies in the ointment are the reported thirst of that engine (compensated somewhat by the impressive 22l fuel tank) and the purchase price. In theory you could ride out of your local Ducati dealer on a Multistrada V4 for ‘just’ £15,500, but given what you’d sacrifice over the ‘S’ version, I daresay nobody will. I expect the base model to be quietly dropped after the first year, just as they did the cooking-grade Multistrada 950. Add the ‘Travel & Radar’ pack to get the touring basics like panniers and heated grips (as well as that fancy radar-guided adaptive cruise control) and you’re going to need to find more than £20k. I’d also be adding a top box and a bit of crash protection, so let’s call it a nice round £21,000. At that price, it had damn well better be the only motorcycle you’ll ever need, because you’re certainly not going to be afford to buy any others.
The other Italians
While Ducati may be the quintessential Italian motorcycle, it’s easy to forget that their sales volume is completely overshadowed by those of the Piaggio Group. Their Moto-Guzzi brand has taken the best part of their V85TT adventure-touring bike – the charismatic 850cc air-cooled engine – and used it to give their ageing V7 platform a new lease of life. Keeping air-cooled engines alive post-Euro5 is going to be very difficult indeed, and it will be interesting to see just how long the traditionally-minded manufacturer can keep it up. With the death of the old V7 engine, Moto-Guzzi is now a single-engine manufacturer, building effectively just three models. I suspect that the next couple of years’ sales figures will determine whether or not parents Piaggio decide to invest the considerable resources required to develop a future-proof, potentially electrified drivetrain for this niche brand. If you like old-school, air-cooled naked bikes, buy one while you still can.
On the other side of the corporate roster sits Aprilia, another Piaggio brand that’s been shedding models for years now. With every penny apparently going into keeping the remaining few models competitive through occasional nips and tucks, this ‘other’ Italian sportsbike company surprised everyone last year by announcing their new RS660 sportsbike. Lightweight, festooned with high-end running gear, and extracting an impressive 100bhp from a 660cc parallel twin engine, almost 50% more than the Japanese competition. The price tag (£10,000) is closer to what bikers used to pay for their 600cc-class sportsbikes than the current crop of more practical middleweights, so it will be interesting to see if there’s really a market for such a machine. The reduced piston count should mean a less peaky, more road-focused delivery, and Aprilia promise that the suspension is tuned for bumpy B-roads, not glass-smooth racetracks. I’m looking forward to finding out if it can live up to the hype.
But while many won’t agree, the Italian bike I’m most keen to actually ride after the Multistrada V4 does, in fact, sport an exposed trellis frame and single-sided swingarm. What it doesn’t have is front forks, a pillion seat, or a surfeit of power. The Italjet Dragster 125/200 look, quite frankly, like concept bikes or one-off specials, made by someone who really misses their Peugeot Speedfight. Even Italjet‘s own webpage has to confirm that no, they are not joking – this really is a production bike. It’s expensive, for a 125/200cc scooter, but at around £5,000 it’s still nothing compared to what most people spend on their two-wheeled toys. And imagine the crowd you’ll draw after parking up at your local bike meet on one of those!
The rest of Japan & Europe
Slim pickings here – mostly just new paint and stickers across the board. Plenty of models are living on borrowed time, with derogation rules allowing pre-Euro5 models to be sold only while limited stocks last. Suzuki and Yamaha‘s showrooms will look noticeably less diverse as 2021 progresses, and for the first time since the 80’s Honda won’t have a V4-powered bike in its line-up. The Yamaha FJR 1300‘s almost two-decade-long production run is coming to an end, with changing tastes having already killed off the Honda ST1300 Pan European and Kawasaki GTR1400. But even though adventure-tourers are the flavour of the month, the Yamaha Super Tenere never found much of an audience and the cost of Euro5 compliance was evidently too high to justify.
On the other hand, the Tracer 700 & 900 have become the Tracer 7 & 9, the larger of the two gaining a number of high-tech features alongside it’s fractionally larger and cleaner three-cylinder engine. It sounds like some of the things I complained about in my review have been addressed (better handling, new up-and-down quickshifter), along with a few things I didn’t really have a problem with (bigger panniers, new electronically-controlled suspension). The latter could result in another unwelcome price bump, and given that the Tracer 900GT was already in danger of losing the value proposition compared to the Kawasaki Ninja 1000SX, this could be a real problem. Move too far up-market and suddenly the more prestigious European offerings start to look more reasonable by comparison.
Speaking of the Europeans, BMW has updated their S1000R naked bike. No ShiftCam technology here, just mild Euro5 tweaks, but the styling is much more cohestive and makes for a significantly more attractive motorcycle in my opinion. But I’m afraid it’s also one of the least interesting offerings in the segment. Flat-plane crank inline-four naked bikes are a little bit like washing machines. They’re very good at their job, they just aren’t usually terribly interesting. And when similar money buys you almost any other engine configuration, you’ve got to discount a lot of other really charismatic motorcycles to end up at the S1000R.
KTM realised that everyone was pushing 800cc adventure bikes up to 900cc and did the same thing, creating the 890 Adventure in the same various flavours as the previous 790. I really wanted to consider that bike as a V-Strom 650 replacement, but the damning reliability reports from the then-new power plant combined with the existing stories I keep hearing about electrical problems prevent me from seriously considering the Austrian brand. Maybe the new 890 platform will be the point when things change; maybe not.
In Kawasaki‘s world things have been pretty quiet, save for the unveiling of the updated Ninja ZX-10R. Speaking as something of an apologist for what many people would consider to be ugly motorcycles, I am afraid to say that I haven’t seen a front fairing design this…unfortunate in a very, very long time. Then again, given that no-one except racers buys them anyway, and the fact that they’ll just replace all the bodywork with race fairings, it probably doesn’t matter too much.
India & China
This is where things get a little left-field. There are now so many Chinese manufacturers masquerading as old European brands that it’s hard for even an obsessive like me to keep up. Traditionally fiscally flaky Italian firms like Benelli have enjoyed drinking from the financial firehose of Chinese investors and have a slew of impressive-looking, if rather underpowered and overweight models in showrooms. Chinese manufacturers desperate to shed the stigma of their previous sub-standard efforts have been snapping up defunct British nameplates and using them to flog ultra-trendy small-capacity bikes for years, and some of the results have been just as bad as you’d expect. But for every zombified AJS there are a few that claim to source their engines and electronics from China, yet assemble them in Europe according to our more exacting quality and longevity expectations. Herald even claims that they are graduating from this process after ten years and that their new Brute 500 is wholly manufactured in the UK. Now there’s something I’d like to see in person…
Regardless of where they’re built, it’s true that the quality and dealer support for these less well-established brands has improved dramatically in recent years, with the more successful and, one hopes, trustworthy of them all branching out into larger capacity offerings. CFMoto have been selling ultra-budget, Kawasaki-derived 650cc motorcycles for a few years now, and a recent tie-up with KTM is set to extend their range with engines sourced from their new Austrian partner. Chinese police are already testing a 1290-derived fully-faired bike that would be an interesting BMW R1250RT competitor, especially at half the price.
Their countrymen over at Zontes haven’t been selling products in the UK quite as long, but they’re clearly determined to catch up fast. While their 125cc selection does a good job of imitating Kawasaki and Suzuki‘s various naked models, their catchily-named ZT310-T looks like a Triumph Tiger 1200 that shrank in the wash. Part of the truly enourmous Guangdong Tayo Motorcycle Technology Company, Zontes are keen to follow CFMoto in demonstrating that Chinese brands can deliver more than just throway learner bikes. The spec list is quite frankly incredible given the £4,199.99 asking price. Keyless start, TFT dash, electric screen, backlit switchgear, Bosch-sourced ABS, Lithium-Ion battery…some of these are features that bikes four times the price don’t even offer.
It’s also available with either forged 17″ wheels or a spoked 19″/17″ combo, depending on whether you expect your journeys to take you onto gravel or not. This thing undercuts the much-vaunted Royal Enfield Himalayan on price and weight while beating it handily on features and performance. It’s well worth checking out the feature video on their UK website, which unlike a few Chinese brands I could mention actually works and looks like it was designed by professionals. No, I don’t expect the bike itself to be up the standard of bigger, more expensive European or Japanese fare, but my own experiences with the Himalayan weren’t great and plenty of people took a chance on those at a similar price point. If your £20,000 BMW is too precious to actually take off-road and comes out in a rash in the winter salt, then maybe a Zontes ZT310-T could be worth a look.
Speaking of Royal Enfield, their less off-road focused bikes continue to show promise. Hot on the heels of the universally-acclaimed and best-selling Interceptor 650 comes the Meteor 350. A more cruiser-oriented offering, the new bike will cost just £3749 on the road here in the UK. If the quality and riding experience are up to that of the Interceptor, that price could help move a lot of metal once stocks arrive at UK dealers. Japanese small-capacity cruisers have always struggled to maintain the all-metal authenticity cruiser riders crave, and the Interceptor‘s success proved that well-judged running gear and an ultra-competitive price can make up for the power deficit that often prompts the Japanese to choose water-cooling for their offerings. Royal Enfield has serious ambitions for the western market, and I’m very interested to see if the Meteor helps maintain their momentum.
Those of you who have been paying attention at trade shows over the last couple of years will have noted the proliferation of small electric motorcycle and scooter companies. Almost exclusively Chinese and often dominated by cheap-looking Vespa clones it’s been hard to take them seriously. Touted as transport for city-dwellers who don’t need to travel further or faster than their 50cc-equivalent motors can take them, my usual recommendation to such people is to buy an e-bike instead. You’ll go just as far, just as quickly, and the benefits include being allowed to use cycle lanes and paths as shortcuts. And if you needed to go further or faster, then a petrol-powered motorcycle was always a better bet.
SuperSoco always stood out for me, simply because of their design spoke of ambitions beyond the fray of rushed lookalikes. Their bikes have a unique visual aesthetic that suggests actual care and thought is steering the brand, even if the performance limited my interest in the past. But while many of these cheap cash-in marques have come and gone, SuperSoco is still here, and frequently sold alongside more established electric brand Zero in dealerships. What’s more, for 2021, they’re finally offering a 125cc-equivalent option in the shape of the TC Max. It’s currently available for just £3,825 after the UK government’s OLEV Plug-In Motorcycle Grant, which is slightly cheaper than Honda‘s similarly-styled and similarly-performing CB125R. 125’s aren’t exactly expensive to fuel and tax, but charge the removable battery at the office and the savings could add up quickly. Definitely worth a look!
In the same vein we have relative newcomers Horwin, imported to the UK through electric scooter stalwarts Artisan Electric. I’ve never been overly impressed with Artisan‘s product: plastic and fake-chrome-covered imitations of classic italian scooters matched with relatively low-tech electric drivetrains. But we’ve all got to start somewhere, and they’ve lately diversified into more futuristic designs which, I think, are much better executed. Their tie-up with Horwin brings the very stylish EK3 electric scooters to the UK for under £4k, but it’s the CR6 retro-bike and upcoming CR6 Pro that really caught my eye. The latter uses the same motor and battery combo, but adds a 5-speed manual gearbox and clutch to eke out every drop of performance and theoretically push the bike up past the 60mph mark. I’m forever pondering the idea of getting another 125cc motorcycle to handle my 70-mile round-trip commute, and it would be very interesting to see if the technology has finally reached a point where electric becomes a viable option.
Bring on 2021
As you can see, there’s lots to be excited about for the 2021 riding season. Motorcycling was one of the few success stories of 2020, as dealers reported record sales following the first lockdown in spring. Commuters were encouraged by the government (and, perhaps, common sense) to avoid the crowded petry dish that is public transport but unable or unwilling to switch to their car or bicycle. It seems they suddenly discovered what the rest of us have known all along: that motorcycling is the perfect way for most people to get to work. CBT’s were booked solid and 125’s flew out of showrooms.
But bigger bikes sold well too, even amongst the luxury brands. Perhaps those buyers were simply looking for an outdoor hobby that allowed them some fresh air with built-in social distancing. Perhaps the sobering news gave people the nudge they needed to finally get up off the couch and live a little. All that lockdown-enforced time for self-reflection may have helped many realise that life can be short, and that no amount of risk-aversion, healthy eating, and clean living can fully protect us from something like Covid-19. As an otherwise fit, young, healthy individual who caught it early on and was on a oxygen a week later, I can confirm that it’s not just the frail, infirm, or incautious who can fall victim to this invisible killer.
Yes, motorcycling can be dangerous, and going for a ride without the right gear and training can multiply that risk significantly. But perhaps 2020 helped a number of non-riders consider that a little bit of risk can be worth it, given the thrill and excitement that motorcycling offers. None of us really know how much time we have on this planet. And as the saying goes, don’t put off until tomorrow what you could do today.
Go ride a motorcycle.