Café culture in the Peak District
The Peak District has some of the best roads, riding and scenery in England. Some of the cafés aren’t bad either...
IT’S EARLY-DOORS ON a glorious autumn morning and the sun is painting Buxton’s stonemasonry a deep, glowing orange. RIDE’S test team mills about outside the ivy-clad Old Hall Hotel in the centre of the spa town, fully breakfasted and ready to take three modern café racers – Kawasaki’s Z900RS Cafe, Triumph’s Thruxton R and BMW’S R ninet Racer – around the Peak District’s finest stone-wall chicanery and look damn good doing it. But the scene is so idyllic, with chrome metalwork and candy paint glinting in the sparkly sunlight, it almost seems a shame to spoil it by riding the bikes. Almost…
Buxton to Bakewell
What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, Sunday, the usually delightful hoon up to Buxton along the winding A515 from Ashbourne, through Fenny Bentley and along the high, straight ridge of Sterndale Moor, was anything but delightful on the
“Monday morning in the national park is a bike-friendly place”
BMW R ninet Racer S. Trapped behind queued ranks of cars, hemmed-in by double white lines, plodding along at 40mph, the R ninet Racer — with a saddle so far back from its low clip-ons it’s like clinging to a window ledge — was out of its comfort zone. So was I. No sugar-coating it: the Racer has a radical riding position.
Lee agreed: “If I’d bought an R ninet Racer and ridden it here, I’d be stopping at the next dealership and swapping it for something better,” he said, tongue in cheek, but not by much. “It’s so stretched out. All your weight is on your wrists. I spent the ride with one arm on the tank.”
But hang on, all that weekend tourist traffic was yesterday. Today is another story; Monday morning in the national park is a much happier, more bike-friendly, place. Empty, open roads, rolling hillsides and sprawling moorland slopes and towns and villages dotted with inviting tea shops.
“There’s something about café racers that makes the idea of tea and cake more appealing than on, say, a sportsbike,” says Jimmy. Maybe it’s the repetition of ‘café’? Or maybe it’s an excuse to park up and admire the BMW’S good looks.
We’re following a short, circular route around the Peaks, which starts by heading south out of Buxton on the flowing A53 (limited to 50mph), admiring the open views to the left across Brandside and towards Buxton Raceway (yes, a speedway track and tarmac oval in the heart of a national park). The Peak District is one of the UK’S most-popular and well-known destinations for riding and it’s easy to see why, with a broad variety of roads; high moorland passes, sweeping A-roads, tree-lined valleys; and plenty of famous biking names, such as Matlock Bath, Snake Pass and Cat & Fiddle. It’s like having your favourite roads and venues in one place.
And this morning, as the sun burns off a layer of low cloud lingering across the hill-tops, the R ninet Racer is a much more palatable proposition. Jimmy loves the special glow its stunning looks impart: “Riding through town, it gives you instant cool,” he says. “You know you look good. You feel like you’re in a cologne advert.”
“And the other bonus is I can get both my feet flat on the floor at the same time,” he says. It a very low seat height.
We bomb down the A53, past the Flash Bar Stores Café (the highest village stores in England, apparently) and turn right just before The Winking Man pub.
A road like the A53, speed limits aside, is built for the R ninet Racer. Fast, open, flowing, reasonable surface — and even bumps and imperfections are ironed out by the Beemer’s pliant suspension. It might be a rack to sit on but the springs are supple. Riding the BMW requires steady guidance rather than enjoying an instant response, though. The BM’S clutch and throttle are heavy, the gearchange a lengthy process
and plotting a line is best achieved with a diary. It’s not that it doesn’t go or handle, it just takes its time about it. The motor, a last-generation air-cooled Boxer twin that powered everything from a GS to an RT, is a galumphing old thing.
Heading off the A53 along Leek Road towards Longnor, the BMW flies between the trees and hillsides but through the steep hairpins past Crowdecote, it needs a bit of wrestling to get its wheelbase to turn. On to the B5055 to Bakewell, the surface deteriorates and has the Beemer skipping around a bit over the corrugations; your weight’s not supported by your knees so your wrists and bum take the jolt.
Some civilities get a look-in, of course — this is a BMW. The solo seat has a stash space for waterproofs and the S model comes with heated grips, LED indicators and wire wheels; basic ASC traction control is a £320 option. But there’s nowhere to store luggage, unless with BMW’S 11-litre bespoke R ninet Racer tankbag. “I can’t imagine how you’d fit, with that in the way,” says Lee.
Bakewell to Ladybower
Rolling sedately down the hill into Bakewell, bustling home town of the Mr Kipling, Kawasaki’s bright green and white-striped Z900RS Cafe commands centre-stage like a big, spearmint-flavoured narcissist.
Kawasaki isn’t shy of mining its legacy for new bike sales and now the big K is drilling at the heritage seam again, releasing the Z900-based RS early in 2018 and then a Cafe version — though quite where the culinary reference comes in isn’t entirely clear: “The Kawasaki is a bit of a ringer in this group,” says Lee. “It doesn’t feel how a café racer should — the upright bars and mid-set footrests are pure roadster and they’re the first things any self-respecting 1960s café racer would’ve changed.”
This is true — and while the bikini fairing is big, round and wide enough to be useful, it’s not faithful to any Kawasaki that I can remember. The Cafe is the only bike of the group with cast wheels too, though its spokes are thin enough to look like wire from a squinted distance.
But the overall visual impact of the Z900RS Cafe is, admittedly, almost as
stunning as the BMW. It’s unusual, in these days of dull conformity, to see such an outrageous hue and bold decals from any manufacturer — the Vintage Lime Green is eye-popping and the bold, broad white stripe along the tank and over the headlight is just the right side of brash.
The Cafe’s wide, flat bars and upright riding stance are much appreciated too, after the stresses and strains of the BMW. The Kawasaki has a conventional riding position; its seat is slightly lower and more sculpted than the standard Z900RS, which can feel a bit sit-on rather than sit-in so the Cafe is more engaged and engaging.
The motor is conventional inline four too — it revs with ease, as if its internals are missing. The whole package feels easy, light and slick, unlike the BMW’S deliberations.
“The Kawasaki is all about ease-of-use, in the way big Japanese multis do so well,” says Jimmy. “At low speed yesterday, in traffic, the Cafe was still a piece of cake to ride — it isn’t cramped or uncomfortable, it didn’t get hot, the levers, gearbox and throttle all light and easy to use.”
Today, away from the barren hilltops of the Peaks and now running through broad, tree-lined avenues on the B6001 towards Hathersage, the Z900 skims along effortlessly, its big inline four barely troubled at the pace. Compared to the twins, the Cafe’s motor is the least organic or charismatic; it’s not an engine you look forward to using for its own sake. It’s just there, propelling the Z900 efficiently along and occasionally going fast enough to trouble the Cafe’s suspension — and the Kawasaki is the only one we feel compelled to adjust. At moderate speeds, the RS’ chassis is fine: “In fact, the others don’t steer as sweetly at normal speeds as the Kwacker,” says Jimmy. “It wants to lean over, it’s balanced and confidenceinspiring. It loves roundabouts.”
“Definitely easiest to chuck about at low speed,” agrees Lee. “That confidence probably comes from its riding position – you’re so much more upright and over
the front end on the Kawasaki, and you’ve got leverage over the bars.”
But pick up the pace a touch and, for me, some of the ripples and dips in the road have the Kwack chopping around and over-reacting. We take a break from the ride and I spend five minutes adding a couple of clicks of damping all-round - it feels tighter, sharper and more controlled.
Compared to the BMW, the Kawasaki is the model of practicality for a spot of weekend touring – its pillion seat has bungee points, though it looks less friendly for actual pillions, as it slopes backwards with only a strap to hang on to.
As we press on to the foot of the Snake Pass, I spend the ride playing with the Kawasaki’s engine, dancing around on the snickety-click gearbox, enjoying its revvy acceleration and wondering if the Z900RS Cafe will become the best-selling Kawasaki of 2019. Because it deserves to be.
Ladybower to Buxton
The Snake Pass is the other famous road in the Peaks — and with the Cat & Fiddle rendered no fun by average speed cameras, anyone wanting to stretch their mechanical legs makes a beeline for the un-speedcamera-ed Snake Pass instead.
We turn left after the bridge over the head of Ladybower reservoir, leaving the A6013 and joining the A57 heading to Glossop. I jump on Triumph’s Thruxton R for the burst through the trees and to the top of the hills overlooking the town. After a couple of miles we pull into a layby and sit in the sunshine while Chippy shoots statics. It’s fun, watching other riders — the lines they take through corners, their speeds, the different machines.
However, our eyes are continually drawn back to the test bikes. The Thruxton R comes with bling Öhlins shocks, Showa Big Piston Forks, Brembo discs and radial calipers, Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tyres, single seat and various up-spec details over the standard Thruxton. And this Track Racer version adds a fairing, stainless Vance & Hines slip-on cans, LED indicators and a leather tank strap – a collection of
extras that add nearly two grand.
And it’s a fine-looking machine — Triumph’s stylists and engineers pulled off a neat trick with the revamped Bonneville motor in 2016 — water-cooled inside but still air-cooled in looks. The 1200cc parallel twin only bangs out 96bhp but does it with a deliriously rev-happy enthusiasm, making it the smoothest, funkiest, feistiest parallel twin I can remember and the polar opposite of BMW’S slow-revving Boxer.
And the Thruxton handles with a modern twist. It makes few compromises to styling; quality suspension, brakes and rubber coupled to conventional steering geometry means it goes round corners like a modern bike should.
“It actually feels like a 250,” says Lee. “In a good way; it’s so slim your knees feel as if they’re almost touching.” And the Triumph is agile too — it dives into turns, and then tracks them perfectly. It shows the BMW R ninet Racer the right way to do café-racer styling coupled with modern handling.
The Triumph also has the BMW and Kawasaki beaten when it comes to spec; the Thruxton has three engine modes — Sport, Road and Rain — and comes with traction control as standard. The only thing it lacks compared to the Z900RS Cafe and R ninet Racer is a big fuel tank. But at 14.5 litres to their 17 litres, and a more frugal 53mpg to their high 40s, the Thruxton will still eke out over 150 miles from a fill-up.
And that’s plenty far enough in one go, even though the Triumph is leagues ahead of the BMW in terms of comfort, despite sharing similar bum-down, head-up
ergonomics. “There’s still a fair amount of weight on your wrists,” says Jimmy. “But it’s nowhere near as harsh or radical as the BMW.” How does it do that? “Well, it’s a short wheelbase and you aren’t as stretched out over the tank as the BMW.”
The Thruxton isn’t as successful as the Kawasaki and BMW when it comes to drawing a crowd, though; it’s the most overlooked when the bikes are parked. The R ninet is the clear winner, looks-wise. “It looks great in isolation,” says Jimmy. “But it’s not as showy as the other two.” But for me, there’s something fussy about the number of different finishes; polished top yoke, alloy clip-ons, gold forks, chrome dials, yellow shocks, at least five finishes on the engine… it’s all nicely done but a bit much.
We gather our thoughts and carry on across the top of the A57, living up to its name and snaking down into Glossop. The Triumph carves out a consistent lead over the other bikes and by the time we hit the A624 south back towards Buxton, it has to stop and wait for the others. Just as well, because they would have missed the turning at Chapel-en-lefrith, diverting onto the B5470 and heading towards Whaley Bridge. Then we take the A5004 south again, to wind back and forth along its tasty curves until, just before Buxton, we nip down Goyt’s Lane towards the halfempty Errwood reservoir. We ride across the head, then wind back and forth along an unclassified road following the Goyt river up onto the A537 — the Cat & Fiddle — and drop down into Buxton.
We park up, chain the bikes to each other, cast a loving glance over the shoulder and retire to the bar to deliberate.
TRIUMPH THRUXTON 1200 R TRACK RACER £14,350 • 1200cc parallel twin • 96bhp • 203kg (dry) • 810mm seat • 14.5 litres BMW R NINET RACER S £11,730 • 1170cc flat twin • 109bhp • 219kg • 805mm seat • 17 litres
KAWASAKI Z900RS CAFE £10,792 • 948cc inline four • 110bhp • 216kg • 820mm seat • 17 litres
Café racers in their natural habitat — the sinuous roads of the Peak District Café addicts in natural habitat, scoffing yet more cakes and biscuits
Gravity takes over after one-too-many café stops...
Cat & Fiddle Snake Pass Ladybower reservoir Start/finish Bakewell
Catalogue pose for purveyors of outsize clothing