Eventually, every trend is forced to break from its underground roots as commercialisation takes over. The anti-capitalist hippy generation soon saw their tie-dye T-shirts in mainstream shops owned by multinationals and it wasn’t long before the anti-establishment attitude of punk leaked into high street fashion. And now we are seeing the same thing happening within the motorcycle customisation scene. Based on the ethos of small independent backstreet workshops or simply a bloke in his shed, the custom culture is now far from the underground movement it once was as every major manufacturer tries to tap into this fashion.
If you haven’t got a brochure full of blokes in beards sipping craft beer while hanging out with their equally hirsute mates in a café/workshop next to your retro bike then you are missing a marketing trick. And this desperation to satisfy fashion has seen manufacturers not only unveiling a rush of new retro bikes, but alongside them the kits required to transform them into something unique such as a café racer or scrambler. Well, as unique as a mass-produced item altered with other mass-produced items can ever be!
Two manufacturers leading the way when it comes to these custom retro bikes are Triumph and Yamaha. Like an old rocker rolling up his sleeves to once again display his tattoos, Triumph aren’t exactly fresh to the café racer scene while Yamaha are the relative new boys, arguably lacking that crucial dollop of authenticity. And that means they are tackling the task in two very different ways.
When designing the Thruxton R, Triumph went as modern as possible while ensuring the bike looked visually period. Touches such as the exposed engine fins and spark plug, tank strap and Monza filler cap belie the fact water-cooling, ABS, traction control and ride-by-wire hide behind the retro façade. This is a bike designed and built ground-up as a package directly target- ing the picky modern classic market, unlike the XSR900.
Instead of creating a bespoke retro bike, Yamaha took an existing model (the MT-09) and used it as a base and added styling touches to create their own version of a modern retro. And this fundamental difference in design leads to a very different feel when it comes to how their bikes respond when you add their factory-fit café racer kits.
Dressed in its half-fairing, the Thruxton R looks every inch the authentic café racer. The fit, feel and overall impression is just right and after an estimated fitting time of two hours – it took Relphy four and he is good with spanners – you are left with a truly beautiful café racer. In contrast the Yamaha screams ‘bodge job’ as its clip-on bars contort the various lines and pipes into awkward shapes while the seat hump looks out of place. It’s a bike being forced against its will to adopt a different persona and, like your dad wearing jeans and a baseball cap, it simply doesn’t pull it off. And the ride is even worse.
‘I’m struggling to think of a more uncomfortable bike to ride than this XSR racer’
I’m honestly struggling to think of a bike more uncomfortable to ride than this XSR café racer, aside from the equally hideous XJR1300 Racer, which I think shares the same awful bars! Not only are they dropped at such an angle that they put immense strain on your wrists, they are oddly wide and make controlling the bike tricky. Maybe it’s the added pressure on your wrists, but the XSR just doesn’t have natural handling with these bars fitted and the suspension, which I remember being quite soft and forgiving with the standard flat bars, is harsh and jolting. And then, just when you think the ride can’t get any more miserable, you start to feel the cold seep of water onto your bum and you remember the suede seat acts like a sponge in the wet.
Are there plus points? I’m struggling to find them. Such is the discomfort that you can’t enjoy the truly wonderful triple engine or XSR’s nimble chassis, the aluminium seat hump looks OK but slightly out of place without a half-fairing and the fly screen is a bit pointless. I quite like the rearsets, but after a while the lack of rubber on the lever started to rub my foot, so plus points are scarce and when Relphy offered me the Triumph’s keys with a comment of “the kit really enhances the ride”, I nearly cried with joy.
Talk about chalk and cheese. The Thruxton’s clip-on bars are only a touch lower than standard to stop any interference issue with the fairing and are all-day comfortable. Yet this subtle drop means you feel more in tune with the bike while tucking behind the fairing (I love the neat cut-out in the screen) with your chin on the tank and the sound of the fruity, yet far from offensive, V&H pipes transports you back into the days of the rockers. Only with modern machinery and this is key to the Thruxton.
The Thruxton R café racer is not only great looking, the fact it has top quality modern brakes and suspension, as well as a great chassis, means it delivers where it counts. The fact your weight is set slightly further forward makes the handling a touch sharper, the engine feels fresher thanks to the revised fuel map to suit the aftermarket pipes and the fairing actually does deflect a reasonable amount of wind when you up the pace. Crucially, unlike the Yamaha, it hasn’t sacrificed any practicality or performance in the name of fashionable styling.
I love the XSR900, I really do, but this mish-mash of extras neither have the style nor the practicality to bring anything much to the party aside from discomfort. Instead they tarnish what was once a great-riding bike.
The Thruxton R, on the other hand, is enhanced in every single way by its café racer styling and it shows the benefits that clever additions can do to both a bike’s look and feel. Triumph keeps on getting it right when it comes to seamlessly blending old and new and the Thruxton R with the café racer kit is their best effort to date. The XSR café racer looks good from a distance, but that’s about as good as it gets.
‘It’s tailored fit versus forced’
The Thruxton R looks, feels and rides as if it was destined to be converted into a café racer while the XSR900 is brilliant bike ruined by its ill-conceived bolt-ons. It’s the difference between tailoring the bike from its design stages to be customised into an alternative style and attempting to force an existing model to become something it isn’t.
The half-fairing and slightly lowered bars, not to mention the beautiful exhaust note, makes the Thruxton’s riding experience far more engaging and evocative of yesteryear, which is what you yearn for in a modern café racer. On the XSR the overly low bars cramp the riding position and make for an unpleasant and uncomfortable ride that only conjures up mental images of the next fuel stop and a chance to shake life back into your aching wrists and dry your wet arse.
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