Lungs of chrome

Whether your interest in riding started on the pillion seat of a bike, or you just woke up one morning and decided you wanted to experience first-hand the thrill of the ride, there’s little more empowering than climbing onto your own motorbike and taking to the open road.

WORDS Richard Webb

While your love of motorbikes may not be in doubt, with everything on offer from Harleys to Vespas, the only question is ‘what to ride?’

Kawasaki has a long tradition of making great bikes and to top it all, their engineering alchemists really like Batman. Their Ninja H2 is definitely what the caped crusader would ride. This bike has only one purpose in life, and that’s to give you the most exhilarating and exciting performance possible. However, it’s not for the uninitiated, and nothing less than experienced, razor-sharp reactions will do to tame the raw excitement on offer.

The 16-valve, liquid-cooled supercharged engine sizzles the bike to 100km/h in less than 2.5 seconds – storming its way to 297km/h. Even its carbon-fibre mirror arms generate down force at speed. The hand-applied paintwork contains genuine silver that gives an outrageous mirror-like finish. If a bike could ever plug in directly to your adrenal glands, this is it.

Arch-rival Ducati generates genuine affection from professional and road riders alike, both united by the same passion – a real love for the motorcycles made in Borgo Panigale, Italy. Their latest paired-back bike is again named after a large, ugly, and frightening imaginary creature. Their Monster 821, though, is a stylish mix of minimalism and performance, and it gets right back to the original Monster concept, where less is more. Powered by the Testastretta 11° engine, this package is the most attractive mid-range Monster ever.

If you are hankering after a more languid, easy-rider experience, the Triumph Thruxton’s blend of gentle performance, retro style and practicality make it the perfect mount. Ideal for a nostalgic easy-going thrum along the dozens of exquisite towns and seaside resorts on the Garden Route.

An 865cc parallel twin café racer, this classic thruster is based on the Bonneville, but is far more rider-friendly than it appears. With a cleverly disguised fuel injection system, its 51kW output will appeal to the mature rider rather than speed junkies. The air-cooled motor is smooth, starts with the stab of a button and unlike the early original models, it doesn’t leak oil, which adds to the reasons it remains a long-running success.

The riding position is honed to specifically work with its suspension to provide a truly comfortable ride. If you are looking for an appealing retro café racer with ‘60s style and all-round performance rather than thrills, this is the one for you.

Moving to the more sedate options, scooters were originally made to compete on cost and weather protection against the motorcycle. Vespas and Lambrettas are right up there with the most iconic of two-wheelers and they’ve always been a real hoot to ride.

The best alarm clock in the world is sunshine on chrome, so I tried an early morning ride on the Vespa GTS – the latest incarnation of the scooter that was first revealed in 1977 as the PX. At once, I could feel the warmth of the sun on my skin and smell the freshly cut grass. Even the trademark ‘rengdeng-deng’ of the engine seemed just right. Everywhere I went on the Vespa, I was greeted like an old friend.

Lightweight controls, and a stylishly reworked analogue and digital dash make it easy to use, no matter how little experience you have. With only 16kW to call on, progress on this 278cc single cylinder liquid-cooled four-stroke is puppy-dog benign, but brisk enough to get you away from the lights faster than most traffic, allowing you to painlessly mingle along. The Sport version’s ABS and – a world first for scooters – traction control, is useful against our more pockmarked roads.

For me, the Vespa carries as much emotional weight as Triumph, Ducati or a ‘Harley’ would for the more heavyweight bikers. However, few motorcycles do details quite like Harley-Davidson. The paint and chrome are lush and deep, the wheels are big and the attitude is classic American style motorbike. If attention grabbing is high on your reasons to ride, then the Harley-Davidson Breakout is a premium and refined piece of kit.

Like walking a big dog, you need to let it know who’s in charge. Its flat, drag-style handlebars and those forward-positioned foot pegs take some getting used to, causing you to adopt the initially uncomfortable ‘gorilla arms’ look. But this is one surprisingly sweet ride. The 51kW horsepower is nothing to gloat about, but the torque does all the talking. Drop the clutch and it all gets quite serious as it delivers an experience unmatched by its many imitators.

If you want jaw-dropping presence, custom is the only way to go. A slew of bike builders are taking custom bikes to new heights by creating more outlandish and exciting café racers and cruisers for those style conscious riders. One of the fastest-rising stars on the custom scene is ER Motorcycles (short for ‘Espresso Racer’). They specialise in taking old BMWs and turning them into functional works of art.

The 1983 BMWR80 has been reworked to create the cleanest, most beautifully detailed BMW you will ever see. Called ‘The Mobster’ it has a touch of the gangster about it, but is also refined. A ruffian in a dinner jacket, this Frozen Bronze coloured beauty is a retro-futuristic mash-up of eras and styles. Other bikes leak oil – this one marks its territory. With an emphasis on clean lines and visual simplicity, it is the little things that make the difference, so the exhaust, handgrips, and upholstery were all completely custom-made.

Regardless of the make or model you choose, motorcycles are just awesome for making every moment count. The diversity of our South African landscape provides riding possibilities to suit all tastes. Traffic can often be light and isolated, so riding on local mountain switchbacks offer a rollercoaster of hairpin bends and far-reaching views.

If you’ve ever wondered why a dog sticks his head out of a car window, hop on a motorbike. You’ll soon find out.