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.
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.