CAFÉ RAC­ERS BMW R ninet Racer vs. Tri­umph Thruxton 1200

Get­ting our caf­feine high Socal-style with a dou­ble shot of retro sport twins with back-road as­pi­ra­tions.

Cycle World - - Contents - By Sean Macdon­ald

Café rac­ers, with their sleek lines, beau­ti­ful body­work, clas­sic looks, and ag­gres­sive rid­ing po­si­tion,

are what first drew me to mo­tor­cy­cles. I didn’t grow up around mo­tor­cy­cles, didn’t care about go­ing off of jumps or around race­tracks—i just wanted to feel free and cool and do some­thing that was ter­ri­fy­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing and fun. To­day’s café rac­ers do that bet­ter than ever be­fore, though this is ex­pressed through two very dif­fer­ent philoso­phies in BMW’S new R ninet Racer and Tri­umph’s Thruxton 1200.

When I got into mo­tor­cy­cles a decade ago, that meant buy­ing a UJM from the ’70s or a (then) new air-cooled Tri­umph Bon­neville or Thruxton. Go­ing the vin­tage route didn’t work out so well, as I’m pretty in­ept with a tool in my hand, which left me with the same op­tion as ev­ery other mid-twen­tysome­thing try­ing to fig­ure out their in­di­vid­u­al­ity (by buy­ing the same thing as ev­ery­one else).

Ten years later, mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers are fi­nally re­spond­ing to con­sumer trends and cre­at­ing mo­tor­cy­cles based on what you say you want, and the re­sult is a range of avail­able mo­tor­cy­cles that lit­er­ally has some­thing for pretty much ev­ery­one. Okay, we’re still wait­ing on a mid­size ad­ven­ture bike that’s truly back-coun­try ca­pa­ble and a rea­son­ably priced street-le­gal su­per­moto, but you get my point.

The BMW R ninet Racer and Tri­umph Thruxton 1200 are café rac­ers from in­cep­tion to fi­nal form. Both came as de­riv­a­tives of pre-ex­ist­ing road­sters, and both add low clip-on han­dle­bars, higher pegs, and style bits to cre­ate a racer look.

The R ninet Racer is new for 2017, fol­low­ing the suc­cess of BMW’S orig­i­nal 2013 BMW R ninet. They share the same 1,170cc air-/oil-cooled flat twin, al­though the Racer makes slightly less power with 92.24 hp and 67.80 pound­feet of torque (com­pared to the orig­i­nal’s 96.5 hp and 75.9 pound-feet of torque), likely due to a new 2-into-1 ex­haust sys­tem that re­places the orig­i­nal model’s 2-into-2. Un­like the R ninet, the R ninet Racer gets a cheaper con­ven­tional 43mm fork (same as the base-model R ninet Pure) in­stead of the orig­i­nal’s higher per­for­mance in­verted 46mm unit. The wire-spoke wheels are also swapped for cast-alu­minum ones, and the orig­i­nal alu­minum tank re­placed with a heav­ier steel unit. Over­all weight comes in at 462 pounds, com­pared to the orig­i­nal’s 461 pounds (dry), while the MSRP is $2,100 cheaper at $13,295 (com­pared to stan­dard 2017 R ninet’s $15,395).

The Tri­umph Thruxton (in name), on the other hand, has been around since 2004 fol­low­ing the Bon­neville’s re­boot in 2001. Un­til last year, it was based on the same 865cc par­al­lel twin as the

Bon­neville and I hated the Thruxton. I thought it was disin­gen­u­ous be­cause it was de­signed to con­vey “sport” but the en­gine was unin­spir­ing, the bike was heavy, car­ried its weight poorly, and it felt like an af­ter­thought.

But last year, Tri­umph re­freshed its mod­ern retro range, with two dif­fer­ent en­gines (900cc and 1,200cc par­al­lel twins), each of­fered in sev­eral ver­sions. The new Thruxton uses the “high power” tune of Tri­umph’s big­ger liq­uid-cooled twin, which adds a higher com­pres­sion head, 45-per­cent lighter crank, and new air­box and ECU tune to the stan­dard ver­sion found in the T120.

The re­sult is 88 hp and 76 pound-feet of torque as recorded on our Dyno­jet dyno, a mas­sive in­crease over the pre­vi­ous it­er­a­tion’s 62 hp and 48 pound-feet of torque. It also drops some weight at 477 pounds, re­sult­ing in a much pep­pier ride. The rest of the bike is all-new and now feels like it’s got­ten the tech­ni­cal at­ten­tion it de­serves rather than just be­ing a styling ex­er­cise. There’s a new shorter and lighter swingarm, new Kayaba car­tridge 41mm fork and shock, and fi­nally a twin-disc front brake setup (dual-pis­ton Nissin float­ing calipers bit­ing 310mm discs). These items are a step be­low the R model’s Showa fork, Öh­lins shocks, Brembo brake sys­tem, and grip­pier Pirelli Di­ablo Rosso tires, but the price is lower by $2,000.

As in­te­gral as café rac­ers are to my life with mo­tor­cy­cles, so are they to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia mo­tor­cy­cle cul­ture. There are lots of other mo­tor­cy­cles in the greater Los An­ge­les area, but it's def­i­nitely the mecca when it comes to café rac­ers in the US.

With that in mind, I grabbed my pal and all-around epic rider Aaron Colton for a day of trac­ing my roots on a day of the cliché Socal café racer ex­pe­ri­ence. As many Sun­day morn­ing, bike night, and group rides do, we met at Deus Ex Machina in Venice to start our ride. Af­ter a cold-brew cof­fee or three, we de­cided to use the June gloom and lack of traf­fic to rip around Venice for a bit in the name of proper ur­ban test­ing, sci­ence, and serv­ing you, the reader.

While these bikes may look sim­i­lar parked out­side Deus’ back door, their dif­fer­ences are ev­i­dent al­most im­me­di­ately when switch­ing back and forth on the road. The BMW is far more stretched out and the foot­pegs are higher, plac­ing

more of your weight on your wrists in a proper “racer-y” rid­ing po­si­tion. The Thruxton, by com­par­i­son, feels built for a Sun­day putt with its higher-rise clipons and more re­laxed rider tri­an­gle.

As pretty as the Tri­umph is (and Tri­umph re­ally nailed the aes­thet­ics with the new model) all eyes were glued to the BMW ev­ery­where we went. I’m not sure if it’s the M-in­spired paint, or the bluish tinted off-white of the rest of the bike, or the bub­ble fair­ing (Tri­umph has a sim­i­lar fair­ing for the Thruxton at $1,000), or just the fact that it’s a café racer that isn’t a Tri­umph—but it was clear fol­low­ing Aaron around Venice which bike is the fan fa­vorite. When the guy in the re­stored ’80s lime green Porsche wants a picture of your brand­new pro­duc­tion bike, you’re do­ing some­thing right in the de­sign depart­ment. Well done, BMW.

De­spite that, I was more than con­tent to stick to the Tri­umph. The new “high power” 1,200cc en­gine is in­cred­i­ble, de­liv­er­ing lin­ear power with per­fectly smooth de­liv­ery. Aaron was happy to re­port that it does power wheel­ies in first, se­cond, and third, which he was most def­i­nitely not ex­pect­ing.

It also han­dles beau­ti­fully—es­pe­cially com­pared to its pre­de­ces­sor. Tip-in is ef­fort­less, and it’s more con­tent un­til lean an­gles get ex­treme. Whether flut­ter­ing through traf­fic or twisty bits, han­dling feels tele­pathic and re­quires zero at­ten­tion, more than I could say for Bmw-mounted Aaron in front of me. I fi­nally called out to him:

“I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you’ve got plenty of room on ei­ther side when lane-split­ting. I can see your mi­cro ad­just­ments and tell you’re aware of those mir­rors and hor­i­zon­tally op­posed cylin­der heads at all times,” I called over to him at a stop­light.

“I mean the en­gine is great, but you re­ally feel con­scious of those heads,” he shouted back. “That plus the torque jack­ing and it just al­ways seems worth giv­ing it way more breath­ing room than you need, ya know?” I couldn’t agree more. Af­ter putting a bit around Ab­bot Kin­ney and the board­walk, a place where med­i­cal mar­i­juana shops out­num­ber Star­bucks and the board­walk is full of street per­form­ers, power lifters, con­spir­acy the­o­rists, and cross-dress­ing tran­sients, we headed north up the

coast into Mal­ibu. Here, the R ninet Racer was much more in its el­e­ment with the long sweep­ing turns and some room to open up the mo­tor. Set against the beach and waves, Aaron looked pic­turesque and his fa­cial ex­pres­sion clearly vis­i­ble thanks to the open-faced hel­met showed he was feel­ing the vibe.

“Not great in the city, but, man, is this thing cool,” Aaron said at one of our stops. “It’s got so much char­ac­ter, and ev­ery time you glance down, you’re dumb­struck by how pretty the thing is. Lots of bikes are pretty, but this is like it keeps re­mind­ing you it’s pretty or some­thing.” It was like he was read­ing my mind.

It didn’t take a Venice Beach tarot card reader to see this com­ing. One look at the spec sheet showed the BMW’S 58.7inch wheelbase and 26.4-de­gree rake, which made it pretty clear this bike was go­ing to be much hap­pier in a straight line than zigzag­ging through traf­fic or blast­ing through nar­row al­ley­ways. That 36-inch width (at the mir­rors, with the heads only a skosh nar­rower) might have tipped us off about the lane-split­ting is­sues as well. Like­wise, it was ob­vi­ous the Tri­umph and its 55.7-inch wheelbase and 22.7 de­grees of rake would feel much more nim­ble and ma­neu­ver­able; even be­fore fac­tor­ing in the higher bars or more com­fort­able rider tri­an­gle.

We’d orig­i­nally in­tended to go to Nep­tune’s Net, a seafood restau­rant on the Mal­ibu coast that has be­come a pop­u­lar rid­ing des­ti­na­tion for mo­tor­cy­clists, but I re­mem­bered hear­ing about a dif­fer­ent spot: Mal­ibu Seafood Fresh Fish Mar­ket, which was closer, had fewer Har­ley guys to make fun of my skinny jeans, and sup­pos­edly had bet­ter tacos—and I’m al­ways game to try some new tacos.

We’d fin­ished some shoot­ing and were hun­gry and de­cided to put the “racer” in “café racer” to see what these bikes were like at speed on wind­ing roads, again all in the name of sci­ence and reader ser­vice. The BMW was quite happy to show that its long and low stance was at home here, mak­ing quick work of the light traf­fic in front of us and rolling hills that en­cour­age a lit­tle more twist of the wrist—its racer stance egging you on. The Tri­umph kept up eas­ily, mak­ing faster work of any ar­eas where we needed to lane-split, though its re­laxed stance made the ride feel much more “Sun­day morn­ing cruise” than “Satur­day night race.”

From there, I took Aaron on a lit­tle ride through the Mal­ibu hills af­ter hear­ing that he’d never been to the Rock Store. I’m not much a fan of the place my­self (I have other lo­cal spots I like bet­ter), but it’s def­i­nitely iconic and, keep­ing in trend with our theme of the cliché ex­pe­ri­ence, we hit the snake and made a lit­tle pit stop where Aaron did Aaron things.

We took turns on the bikes, where I was struck by both how good both en­gines are and how much both bikes re­ally make you con­sider cor­ner­ing clear­ance. With the BMW, it’s the heads you’re wor­ried about, though you’d have to be re­ally shred­ding (or crash­ing) to drag those. With the Tri­umph, its lower foot­pegs touch down ear­lier than ex­pected, mak­ing it equally as te­dious in the tight­est stuff. Nei­ther bike would make my list for full-time canyon carver, though I did find the sus­pen­sion well sprung and damped for our sporty yet re­laxed pace.

Over­all, the BMW re­minds me of the last it­er­a­tion of the Tri­umph. The R ninet Racer is ba­si­cally an R ninet Pure with some pretty bits on it, like the last Thruxton was a dressed-up Bon­neville, whereas the new Thruxton feels like a great deal of at­ten­tion and care was spent on mak­ing it ride like a race-y ver­sion of the com­pany’s mod­ern retro bikes through and through.

Like the Thruxton of old was, the BMW is a great bike if you want to feel racer-y and look cool blast­ing around town. It isn’t great at ur­ban stuff or twisty stuff, and it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily fast, but you will love it if the en­gine char­ac­ter­is­tic and looks make you ex­cited to fire it up. As for Aaron and I, we’d both pick the Tri­umph. The en­gine is in­cred­i­ble, the er­gonomics are su­per com­fort­able, it works great for get­ting around town or for a nice curvy ride, and the fin­ish­ing touches are top-notch. It does “café” great and “racer” even bet­ter.

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