Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

We bought a motorcycle!

November 11, 2012
My favorite mode of ground transportation is the motorcycle. I got my first bike (a '92 Honda Nighthawk 750) in 2005, rode around the US on that bike in 2006, then sold it (when it needed more repairs than it was worth) in 2009, and went bike-less for several years. Last year in Argentina, we rented a Harley Davidson Street Glide for an amazing eight-day trip across Argentina. Steph, who previously had no particular interest in motorcycles, got hooked at that point.

So naturally, moving to San Francisco - with endless roads and mountains to explore in the area, and weather that should allow almost year-round riding - it made sense to buy a motorcycle. Our apartment is also not particularly close to grocery stores, so a vehicle serves functional purposes. (And we didn't want to get a car.)

The basic requirements were: Big enough for two to comfortably ride with luggage, but not too big (like the Street Glide) to ride in the city; with an engine powerful enough for cruising (so thinking 900-1300cc's); and used, but not older than 2005.

We started the search at SF Moto in the city. Their staff was friendly, and they had a few bikes that fit the profile. But they didn't allow any test rides (“no one does test rides, it's impossible to get insurance”), and I wasn't going to buy a bike I had never ridden before.

I went in there thinking of getting a Japanese bike (Honda, Yamaha, or Kawasaki), but they had a Triumph Bonneville that piqued my interest, and the Japanese models I sat on seemed a little too big. So I left their store not with a bike, but with my search horizon broadened.

Triumph is a British manufacturer that started in 1886 and was a motorcycle trend-setter for decades. The 1959 Bonneville inspired a lot of motorcycle design, including the HD Sportster. In the early 80s, around the same time that Harley Davidson was struggling to compete with Japanese bikes and was saved by import tariffs, Triumph went into bankruptcy. The name and designs were bought, however, and the new company built a new Bonneville in 2001, looking like the original but completely re-engineered.

That first shop was wrong about no one allowing test rides, of course. Our next stop was a Harley Davidson dealer in Oakland that let us ride several models. Harleys are bikes with strong personalities. Their V-Twin engines are built to produce more vibration than necessary, producing their distinctive "potato-potato" sound. We tried a Sportster Custom 1200 that was "souped up" somehow by the previous owner, and it shook too much for comfort. (And it turned me off a little that the salesman didn't know what modifications had been made to it.) The smaller Sportster 883 is a nice one-person bike, but didn't seem right for two-up cruising. They didn't have other 1200s to try, and the bigger models were too big and/or too expensive, so we didn't buy a Harley.

Craigslist has tons of motorcycles in the area, and a 2010 Triumph America caught our eye. The America is sort of a spin-off from the Bonneville, with the same engine but a more American-style cruiser look. (The Speedmaster is another model in the family and looks almost identical.) This bike was north in Marin, so we took a bus there one evening, and rode it on some nice curvy roads. We liked the bike, but wanted to shop around a little more before committing for sure.

Next were two shops in Concord that had listed good models on Craigslist. We ended up only going to one, Ace Motorsports. They had a 2005 Triumph America there that we liked a lot. On paper it wasn't as nice as the 2010 model - it was carbureted instead of fuel-injected, and its engine was 790cc instead of 865cc. But the previous owner had modified it so the engine felt more powerful (the stock engine is a little "lethargic" and he had it jetted). Also, for whatever reason, the handling on the 2010 had felt a little slippery, but on the '05 felt really smooth.

2005 triumph america motorcycle

We rode the '05 America, and just to be sure we were on the right track, compared it to a 1300cc model from Honda, which had uncomfortably heavy handling. The Triumph just felt right. We negotiated a price that made it worth the difference with the 2010 model, and bought it!

That was last Saturday. I bought insurance the next day, and went after work on Tuesday (their next day open) to pick it up. Riding home on the freeway felt great. It doesn't have a ton of power - over 90 MPH it doesn't have much more to give - but it feels great at 75, and for our purposes (weekend rides and occasional multi-day trips) that should be fine.

We're waiting on a passenger backrest, luggage rack, and pannier rails to be shipped, to make it more comfortable for touring. Steph also bought a new helmet and gloves and ordered a jacket. (We're planning to take a four-day road trip for Thanksgiving, maybe to Big Sur, so hopefully we'll have all our gear by then.)

We rode yesterday evening a little south. Getting lost on the way back gave us an opportunity to have dinner in a new neighborhood, and we had a great Peruvian meal. Today we rode south on Skyline Blvd, to Route 1 (the coastal highway), down to Half Moon Bay (where we stopped for lunch), then back up route 92 to 280. It's great to be riding again!
half moon bay pacific highway
Still true to its original style - side by side with a 1938 Triumph Speed Twin:
old Triumph Speed Twin motorcycle2005 triumph america motorcycle

- Ben

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