Our first long term test on a Buell

Published: 03 June 2001

I was shaking. Part cold, part anticipation, part excitement. But mainly fear. I was just about to to pick up my Buell X1 Lightning. Problem was, I had not ridden a motorcycle in 15 years and I don’t mind admitting I was very, very nervous.

Maybe I should have taken a refresher course at the local DSA centre. Maybe I should have taken the advice of the guys in the office and gone for a spin around the car park on one of the test bikes. Too late now. I was about to walk through the polished wooden doors of Black Bear Harley-Davidson in Suffolk – and there was only one way to get home.

It wasn’t as if I was too worried about being on the road. I was more concerned about getting the bike out of the car park. Did I still have throttle control? Would I stall it? I had this nightmare image of nancy boy me, in my garish new riding gear, spinning up the rear tyre and dropping the damn thing in full view of all the pony-tailed Harley dudes.

I need not have worried, though. Once Black Bear boss Steve Luxton had talked me through the various features on the bike, I kitted up and swung my leg over it. I kept the revs down, slipped the clutch and chugged out on to the main road. Mission accomplished. Well, sort of. Only another 75 miles to go.

Pulling into the drive at home, I was gobsmacked how such a brief ride could put me straight back in touch with the things I’d been missing for so long. Simple things like the smell of a burning bonfire filling my lid. The pungent aroma of a kale field. The subtle temperature change between the cool open road and warm town streets at dusk. Things you don’t notice in an air-conditioned car.

The other thing that really shook me (literally) was how much the bike vibrated. Everyone had warned me. " You’ll need a fair bit of dentistry work, " was a recurring jibe. But I knew about vibration. I’d owned Triumph Bonnevilles and an Yamaha XS650 and that tingling sensation of a parallel twin never bothered me before. But this was different. Luxton told me to keep it down to 2500rpm for the first 100 miles or so and, believe me, it was uncomfortable. You get a damn good shaking. If it had an onboard CD player all I would have needed was a bit of Metallica to match my involuntary head-banging. Luckily, it got better very soon, but it’s all part of learning to love a bike – something I had more chance to do when I stopped.

In my nervous pre-ride haste, I never took the time to cast my eye over the Buell’s lines, but it really is a looker – even covered in splattered flies.

I usually spend Sundays mowing the lawn or putting up those shelves the missus has been pestering me about. But my first weekend with the Buell was different. I spent it polishing every nut, rubbing flies off the windscreen and buffing up the bodywork. And, believe me, this was no chore, but a labour of love.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always seen my bikes as objects of beauty. Who cares about function? Bikes to me are about fun – that’s why I chose the Buell. I didn’t want a mpg-friendly commuter (too dull) or a full-on sports bike (too tempting). I just wanted something I could go for a spin on when I felt in the mood.

I know some people regard motorcycles as a form of travel, but to me they’ve always been a bit different. You might have seen the T-shirt: " Have you hugged your Harley today? " Well, I’ve never owned a Harley until now, but I have always empathised with the legend.

I know bikes like my old twins might not have been to everyone’s taste, but I loved them. And I’ve always liked my bikes to be different – never been one for those things cloaked in plastic. I like to see the metal – big engines, curvy exhausts, sleek tanks and little seats. You get the idea when I tell you my No1 bike of all time is a Harley XR750 dirt tracker. So with so many similar bikes around, from Harleys to Japanese clones and dozens in between, why did I choose Buell? It’s not an obvious choice, and it was one that caused some quizzical looks from my GSX-R/996/RSV-riding colleagues.

It all started at last year’s Ally Pally Show. The mate I was with was waxing lyrical about how sexy the new CBR600 was and how he might get one. Then we got to the Harley/Buell stand and one shiny model stood out more than anything else.

" If I was going to get a bike again, that’s what I’d go for, " I said. My friend looked at me like I’d gone mad. " Really? Well, get one then. " He thought a little then added: " So when did you last ride a bike? "

" Hmmm, when I came back from the TT on my XS650 in 1986 – or maybe it was 1987, " I replied.

" Bloody hell, things have changed a bit since you were last on the road. A Buell should be an experience. "

I thought hard about that conversation for days. I’d ridden bikes up to the age of 30, quit to concentrate on my freelance career as a road racing scribe and then the wife and I had got into the children-rearing habit. But with our four kids now independent (apart from when it comes to cash), I had more free time. If I didn’t do it now, I never would.

As soon as I mentioned the idea to my wife, Angie, she never stopped pestering me about a delivery date. In fact, she got bitten by the bug so hard she decided to pass her test and then buy herself a bike. At least it means I won’t have to ride the Buell two-up!

A week later the phone calls were made, a deal was done and a gleaming white X1 now graces the garage. I can’t imagine any bike more stunning, with its white bodywork set off by the metallic blue frame and that huge, black 1200cc V-twin.

I figured I also needed the gear to match. My old Freddie Spencer rep Arai had thankfully decomposed in the loft, so there was only one choice of lid – it had to be a Ben Bostrom replica Suomy, complete with stars, stripes and flames. Way cool.

My old waterproofs were also in the loft, but then someone said I should really get some leathers. Good idea. I chose a Dannisport two-piece suit and gloves – on quality and price – and went for Oxstar boots. Naturally, everything matched the bike.

Being introduced to modern gear was one thing, but riding a modern bike was quite another. For the first 500 miles I had to keep it below 3000rpm, where the motor stops shaking and smoothes out nicely. But I won’t forget the day the clock clicked past 499 miles.

Over 4000rpm, the big twin delivers a kick I could only dream about 15 years ago. My previous bikes topped at just over 100mph. I’ve already seen that on the Buell with several more thousand revs to explore.

I’ve not even thought about finding out what it can do, but I have noticed how much you have to use the gearbox to keep the motor happy in traffic. The good thing is the box is so sweet to use – I’d expected a five-speed to be a bit, er, agricultural.

It also helps having such a sure-footed chassis. My Bonnie was a great-handling bike, but the XS650 used to wallow around like a melting marshmallow. I can’t get over how you just pick a line on the Buell and it goes where you point it. Trouble is, I’m apexing too early or too late and giving myself a few " interesting " moments. But that’s not the bike, just me. When I do get it right, especially through a fast S-bend, it’s a wonderful feeling. The thing is so light to throw around.

The advances in tyres and brakes have really surprised me, too. The tyres are twice the width of the rubber I last rode on, but I’ve not really explored any kind of limits. Doubt I ever will. But it’s the front brake that leaves me speechless. It might only have a single disc, but that six-pot caliper is awesome.

I was also surprised how cheap the insurance was. I thought my long layoff would make me a high risk, but because I’ve had a bike licence for 30 years and signed up with Harley’s own insurance scheme, it came in at under £300.

Truth is, I can’t believe I’m back on two wheels again. My biggest fear when I first rode the Buell wasn’t really whether I could get the thing out of the car park. It was more a case of whether I’d still get a buzz from riding. No worries on that count. The pleasure is still there and I’m a bit miffed I’ve waited so long to rediscover it. But then again, only a bike as cool as a Buell could have done it for me. If that sounds a bit lame, I don’t care. That’s how I feel.