Two-Up, Cafe Style
Since I began writing this column about a year and a half ago, I have been asked many times about my definition of “Cafe Racing”. Is it defined by the style of bike you ride, or by the style in which you ride your bike?
Originally, the cafe racers of England and continental Europe rode nothing more than stripped-down roadrace replicas. These were as close to the machinery one would see on the racetracks or at the Isle of Man TT as imagination and basic machining skills could duplicate. Almost always equipped with a single seat, clip-on handlebars, and the absolute minimum of electrical equipment, light weight and a well tuned engine were the core of the formula. For the most part, these machines had to be custom-built, because the factories weren’t putting out race-replicas yet, and modern sport bikes were still decades away.
The way I understand it, cafe racing grew up around the “transport cafes” on the ring roads of London. Much like our truck stops here in the States, these little joints dotted the landscape between London and Brighton and all the other major cities and towns in the island kingdom. A bit of sport called “Record Racing” was invented, where a rider would start his bike, someone inside would start a record on the jukebox, and the rider would roar off to a predetermined location from which he would call and see if the record had ended yet. Breaking “The Ton”, or 100 mph, was a goal–and really quite a feat for some of these oil-slinging contraptions.
Today however, you can go into any dealership and find a motorcycle to fit almost any style you want. There are ready-built cafe racers on offer from several manufacturers, only limited in their authenticity by minimal safety and pollution control requirements. Or you can buy a bare-bones standard and spend the money you save on the purchase price buying the accessories necessary to convert and personalize your mount to whatever your idea of a proper cafe racer is. You can even go all out, and into debt, buying the latest superbike/race-replica and attain speeds the “Rockers” of yore never dreamed of. These choices kind of muddy the waters for those who define cafe racer as a style of bike.
The other alternative is to buy a sport bike of your choice, and spend your saddle time getting from cafe to roadhouse to wherever as quickly as possible, parking next to your buddies to spend a pleasant afternoon bench racing over a nice micro-brew or mocha. I like this approach the best, because it emphasizes riding over wrenching. Sure it is nice to build a knock-your-eyes-out custom, and then spend all day answering questions like: “Where did you get that piece?” and “How fast does it go?”. I have done plenty of that in the past. But this year, it’s time to ride!
My wife and I found the bike of our dreams at the Cycle World show in Minneapolis. How fitting that on Valentine’s Day, 1999, we should both fall in love with the same motorcycle! I am talking about the Triumph Sprint ST. With that snarly 955 cc triple, streamlined dual headlight fairing, and sporty yet comfortable riding position, this bike has everything we will need to cover a lot of miles with smiles.
Can you ride two-up and still be a cafe racer? Why not? Long before they started calling it “Sport Touring”, young blokes and their “birds” were hooning all over the British Isles on the backs of Triumphs and Nortons, BSAs and Velocettes. While not exactly trying to set records point to point as they did when riding solo, there was something about sharing the experience of a fast motorbike with an enthusiastic passenger that had a thrill all it’s own. Besides, when you pull into that small greasy spoon out on the edge of a strange town, it’s nice to have someone along to talk to as you scarf down your next case of heartburn.
Destinations are going to become more important, of course. In the past, the ride has always been the thing. A destination was only an excuse to put on more miles. Roll up a sleeping bag, pack only the bare essentials in a tank bag and hit the road to…anywhere! Well yeah, that’s great when you are twenty-something, single, and free of the stiffness which overcomes older riders after a night spent on a picnic table in a wayside rest. For Amy and I, add a tent to that list, and pack the Visa card for that spontaneous hotel stay. We want to go and see stuff! We want to go and do things! We don’t want to ride hundreds of miles to nowhere only to return hunchbacked and miserable, victims of our own romantic impulse.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see a Gold Wing anywhere in my future. Not even an ST1100! But after several long road trips on my old roadracing Ducati, I am ready to see what this whole ergonomics thing is all about. Am I getting soft? Growing old? Oh, I don’t think so. After all, the Sprint ST is faster on the top-end than the Ducati ever was–even in race trim. I can always pull off the bags, raise the pipe, and go Sunday morning scratchin’ with the boys. Then I can come home, pick up my wife and head out to the river to watch the sunset. So, is it a Cafe Racer? Well, I don’t know about that–but I do know that I still am.