Café cul­ture in the Peak Dis­trict

RiDE (UK) - - Contents - Words Si­mon Har­g­reaves Pic­tures Chippy Wood

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

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