Urban Bikes

A few years ago I owned a Triumph Thruxton, a lovely blue one, heavily accessorized. It had been the sales manager’s bike at the Triumph shop, useful, I suppose, to reveal to Bonneville customers how they could bling-out their own modestly lusty twins.
I enjoyed riding that bike. Its faults, all but one, were forgivable. It was heavy and not nimble. It did not boast the luxurious horsepower you imagine when you read about the 900cc, the overhead cam and the eight valves.

Minor annoyances aside, it was dead reliable and sounded great with its off-road-only mufflers. And it shore was purty.

But its range, its fuel capacity slash thirst, was sorely limited—not a minor fault at all. In the vacant expanses of the US West, fuel-buying opportunities can be scarce. On the scenic routes I had to stop at nearly every gas station and worry between them.

I emailed someone in marketing at Triumph in the UK, asking about that range issue. I was told that the range-per-tank was considered well suited to the bike’s intended use. Intended use? What did Triumph mean by that?

Artwork by Mr. Jensen

I began asking other Bonneville and Thruxton owners how far they could ride on a tank of fuel. I never got an answer. Fuel range was not important. They filled up every so often, never reset their trip odometers or noted how much fuel they bought, indicated right there on the pump.

Why should range matter? The Thruxton was intended, accurately intended, as an urban bike. Someone very smart at Triumph knew how the bikes would be ridden and who their Bonneville customer would be.

In the event that you live far from an urban core, I should tell you that somehow Triumph knew that the bikes would be bought by city dwellers between, oh, 25 and 40, obsessed with “style” and the not-so-distant past. There’s one of them right over there. He just walked into a fire hydrant. He’s writhing on the sidewalk, his knee in one hand, the other still clutching his phone.

Sensing that there was something authentic about Triumph’s classic models, and that Thruxtons represented sporting motorcycling back-when, young urbanites bought all of ‘em Triumph could build. They’d ride to work and to places where one can buy fussily-crafted beverages.

When I offered my own lovely Thruxton for sale, several young men responded to the ad. None knew why that model was called Thruxton. None had owned a bike previously or even one that ran reliably. Or at all.

My feeling also is that none of them owned a helmet worth more than $3.95 or was likely to. Let alone boots. A jacket? Well, some are very good-looking… McQueen-esque. Brando-esque.

When I briefed the eventual buyer about tire pressures and oil grades, his eyes were vacant. None of that mattered. He’d triumphed. He’d scored a Thruxton, the cool bike to buy.

I’ll bet that bike has accrued fewer than 6,000 miles since that day six years ago. I’ll bet it looks terrible. It was pris-goddamn-tine when the young man rode it away.

Since then I’ve begun to notice all the new and pricey motorcycles aimed at urban use. I’d never thought of road-going motorcycles as limited by design to one use or another. People commute on Gold Wings and big BMW GSes and uncompromised, uncomfortable sportbikes, right?

Small displacement scooters and motorcycles are classed as commuter mounts but we hear of their use on long tours, heavily laden and run wide open at ¾ the speed limit. But those machines are cheap, relatively, so we don’t expect much.

Small bikes and scooters deliver more than we pay for. We buy ‘em cheap, we treat ‘em casually, service ‘em infrequently and they run and run. That’s value.

Now we have expensive bikes from which scooter usefulness is expected. Bikes that cost three times the price of a top Vespa, but do the same dreary job. Ten thousand dollar (oh, and more) bikes that spend their lives waiting for the light to change.

These bikes are not sold to people interested in what the bikes do, but what they represent. Performance, handling, braking and fuel range are not priorities to their buyers.

Harley Sportsters, real Harleys, have always been local use bikes, most of them, limited by their 2 ¼ gallon tanks. Most are not fast or nimble, not that any of that matters.

The new H-D vee-twins, made in India? Urban bikes. The ads do not feature photos of horizons as yet unreached. That’s not what the bikes are for. Indian Scouts, various models, most painted flat black? They’re urban runabouts. Their full-page ad photos are shot under streetlight glare.

The entire Royal Enfield line; the new 250s and 300s made in various unlikely locations; the 750cc, 45-horsepower Moto Guzzis; Ducati Scramblers, BMW’s R9T series…

Some of the above are pricey bikes made by genuinely distinguished, genuinely capable companies, but these new bikes’ goals as machines are not lofty, no way. Unless you feel that a motorcycle with real history should waste its life raucously ferrying some bushy dilettante in ballerina jeans and white-soled sneakers between cafes and bars.

This story originally appeared in our January 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.

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