Friday, July 26, 2019

Will Royal Enfield's INT650 spoil him for Moto Guzzi?

Man in helmet astride a Royal Enfield INT650 motorcycle.
Maynard Hershon rides the Royal Enfield INT650 Interceptor at the Denver launch event.
By Maynard Hershon
July 21, about 50 of us rode Royal Enfield demo bikes from a location in rusty post-industrial Denver. Of the 50, perhaps 15 were genuine Millennials, the rest of us being guys in their forties, fifties and sixties. There were a few women test-riding the bikes, and several women organizing the rides and leading them.

Our ride leader, unknown I feel sure to most of us prospective customers, was none other than Melissa Paris, successful, famous road racer and the wife of Josh Hayes, perhaps the winningest male U.S. road racer of the last 15 years. Royalty at the front of each ride group!

I’d hoped I could ride a Bullet or Classic, but the demo truck brought the two 650s, the INT and the low-bar GT, and a few Himalayans. I signed up to ride an INT and then a Himalayan.

Everything seemed well run and no one tried to sell me anything. They even gave those of us who tried more than one model a T-shirt ̬ and some stickers for our toolboxes or wherever.

Denver skyline with Royal Enfield 650 twins behind it.
The Royal Enfield Launch Tour comes to Denver. Does it impress?
First I rode the INT. I felt as if I were sitting well forward on the bike — so that there wasn’t much motorcycle in front of me. The controls are 21st Century normal, so everything is where you expect it to be. There’s a high-beam flasher on the front of the left control.

The bike starts instantly and idles at just under 1,500rpm. Are bikes idling at higher rpms than they used to? My Guzzi idles at about 1,300.

The gear lever moves a tiny distance between gears or from neutral to first. The clutch, the thing about the bike that I disliked most intensely, engages way out at the end of the lever travel. So if you’re not sure if you’re in first gear or second or even neutral — can’t see the light in bright daylight — you have to release the clutch lever almost to the end of its travel to see if you’re in gear.

I killed the INT’s engine twice. I was not well pleased.

You can’t start the bike if the sidestand is down, I feel sure. You can’t start it in gear, and it’s difficult to find neutral — so difficult that if I wore my somewhat clunky, more protective boots, I would seldom find it. I hated that almost as much as I hated the clutch.

The engine is creamy smooth and revs out in a silky fashion. You twitch your left toe to change gear — the bike accelerates seamlessly. On our route through totally unscenic, seamy Denver, I only used three gears. Three was plenty and there’s never a harmonic, never a shudder, never a feeling that you’re not riding a four-cylinder motorcycle.

A Royal Enfield 650 does NOT feel like an old Triumph or BSA (or for that matter Royal Enfield) big twin. It sorta looks like an old British 650 but the mechanicalness of an old Brit twin is sanitized out. It’s a better machine than an old Brit twin but it isn’t a clone or replica, not in action.

The 650 feels really light on the road and the steering is quite responsive. The suspension was so adequate I never noticed it beyond feeling comfortable. The bike was fun to ride except when I had to change gear or come to a halt, in neutral, of course. I got better at finding neutral but I never trusted that I could. Perhaps in ballet slippers...

If I had the money in my pocket and walked into a Royal Enfield dealer to buy one, and they let me test-ride my preferred model, I would experience the clutch and Houdini-like neutral and I would go elsewhere and buy something different.

Then I rode the Himalayan and liked it much better. You sit up and grab wide handlebars. The controls are where they should be. The clutch works like clutches have always worked; the engagement is progressive through many degrees of lever release. Neutral is right there where you can find it.

The Himalayan’s steering is heavier and has more self-centering than the 650. The brakes work well, as they do on the twins. The little Himalayan single is smooth and has limited power, so you have to use the engine and gears to ride the thing well. I enjoyed it a lot.

The Himalayan tach is small and can’t be read at a glance — or I couldn’t. The seat seemed fine and I liked the shape of the tank and the bars guarding the front plastic and I liked the windshield. I could live with a Himalayan, I feel sure, and pick routes to lessen my need for big horsepower. Probably be fun.

As much as I loved my old Triumph twins, I did not immediately lust for a Royal Enfield 650. Maybe it’s just too competent, too polished, too vibrationless, to excite an old Brit-bike owner like me. For its intended owners, born-again bikers and urban commuters, it’s a wholly better motorcycling experience than an old Bonneville or whatever iconic old nail it is meant to suggest.

I apologize to those of you I have disappointed or whose bubbles I have burst. I was afraid that at the Royal Enfield demo day I would ride something that would make me reluctant to return to the saddle of my own bike. Didn’t happen. Whew.

Maynard Hershon has been riding motorcycles since 1962 and writing about them since 1985. He was a regular columnist in the Bay Area's CityBike paper edition for more than 30 years. He's currently featured in Motorcycle Sport and Leisure from the UK. He also wrote columns about bicycling for Winning Magazine and Velo-News. He's living in Denver these days. He recently bought a Moto Guzzi V7, a 2014 Special, very nicely accessorized, in New Jersey, and rode it home to Denver via the scenic routes. He wanted to see how the Royal Enfields compared to his new Italian twin.

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