Time travel on two wheels
A Great Cup of Café: Riding the Royal Enfield Continental GT
Motorcycling is all about speed, freedom and personal style. Look at a bearded, tattoo-festooned Harley-Davidson Electra Glide rider. He’s clearly making a statement that’s half showman, half American pride, all tough guy. There’s no subtlety there, unless there’s a frightened chihuahua in one of his saddle bags. How about the true sport bike rider with a Ducati 1199 Panigale? Full racing regalia in leather and kevlar with knee-high, singular purpose boots that look like they walked off a MotoGP course on their own. He’s all about the razor-sharp handling and the blistering acceleration.
MORE TWO-WHEELED TALES: 5 Best Starter Motorcycles | Behind the Wheel: Darker Shade of Black: Harley-Davidson Dark Custom | Want This, Get This: Ducati 1199 Panigale R or Suzuki GSX-R1000
Ghurka Cavalier II No. 97 Black Norwalk Twill Duffel Bag
No international traveler should be without a great duffel. This mid-sized Ghurka is just the right size and style with its rich dark Norwalk cotton twill fabric and black leather trim and handles. Ghurka also makes packing easier with their ingenious fold-end design, and the twill is so thick, the bag stands up when you pack it.
Helly Hansen Dubliner Jacket
When in London, expect rain. It’s just the way things are, but we didn’t mind. The Dubliner Jacket proved to be just the right outer layer while viewing the sights. Waterproof, windproof and comfortably breathable, it kept us warm and dry and the simple style was just about perfect for casual evenings. The zip-away hood saved us on a few rather wet jaunts, too.
Topo Designs Mountain Pant
Long hours of travel beg for comfort and toughness. The Mountain Pant outdid us. The soft rip-stop cotton and reinforced stitching made these our favorite casual pants on the entire trip, and the large front and rear pockets were both deep and easy to access. Not having to mess with a belt at airport security was the icing on the cake.
Ateliers Ruby Belvedere Helmet
There isn’t a better looking vintage style helmet anywhere. The carbon fiber shell with decorative and wind-cutting spline along the top and back, the butter-soft lambskin lining, and the three different tint visors make for a motorcycle helmet that’s as practical as it is beautiful. Its price will make you never want to crash (not that you’d ever want to).
Joe Rocket Ballistic 8.O Riding Jacket
The right motorcycle jacket can make the difference between comfort and discomfort as well as life and death. Joe Rocket’s Ballistic 8.0 provided great wet weather protection and just the right amount of warmth for our 50-degree riding. The outer shell is waterproof and breathable, and the removable liner keeps you toasty when there’s a chill. The CE-approved armor in the shoulders and elbows, along with spine pad, provide protection and reassurance in the saddle.
Dainese D1 Kevlar Motorcycling Jeans
If you ride with a helmet but wear flimsy pants, you’re not all there, really. The Dainese D1s provide a slick denim look but infuse great riding tech with an ergonomic riding shape, tough DuPont Kevlar fabric, removable Pro Shape knee protection and subtle but highly visible reflective trim. The D1s were comfortable in cool weather and looked pretty damned good on and off the bike.
Wolverine Stockton 1000 Mile Engineer’s Boot
A biker always needs a good pair of boots, especially on a vintage style bike. Wolverine’s masculine Stockton Boot is in the old-school engineer style, made with thick Horween Predator (yes, Predator) leather, a Vibram forefoot sole, a stacked leather and Vibram heel and two adjustable buckle straps for just the right fit. Eight hours in these, and our feet were ready for more — and they look incredible.
Roland Sands Diesel Gloves
What’s vintage riding without the appropriate hand protection? Roland Sands Diesel gloves were picture perfect. The beautiful vintage brown leather with flexible ribbing on the backs got numerous compliments from fellow riders. The snug fit provided great tactility, while the padded palms and knuckles gave protection against abrasion.
And then there’s the rider of a café racer. His is a statement about retro style and a unique simplicity not often found these days. He’s more likely to have a few skinny suits in his wardrobe, along with a couple of pairs of brogues. He also listens to British rock and pedals a fixie when he goes motor-less. For him, it really is all about evoking a feeling of the past while injecting a dose of modernity. He’s just the kind of guy who’d fancy the new Royal Enfield Continental GT (~$7,200), a motorcycle that does more than just move two wheels: it brings back a style from yesteryear while showing what a modern café racer is capable of. Just a few weeks ago, we rode the new Continental GT on the streets of London and British backroads and came away wistful for the past but excited about the present.
Royal Enfield, owned by Gurgaon (Haryana, India) based Eicher Motors Limited since 1994, is hoping to capitalize on the resurgence of café racer culture with the the Continental GT. Their bike is simple, modern, and fun to ride while evoking a highly stylized but bygone era. Enfield’s ambitions run high, with hopes to increase its output from just over 100,000 motorcycles per year to a quarter of a million.
Indeed, the Continental GT is infused with some of Royal Enfield’s successful heritage, namely the Bullet’s engine, which goes all the way back to 1933. Tweaked from 350ccs and 500ccs to a slightly higher 535ccs, the Continental GT will be considered an aspirational bike in many of Enfield’s world markets (namely, Asia), where 125cc and 250cc bikes are more commonplace. Royal Enfield’s presence in India’s 250cc+ bike market cannot be overstated, since they crush imports by not having to pay exorbitant import tariffs.
So why start producing a higher-tiered bike than the Bullet? Siddhartha Lal, Managing Director and CEO of Eicher, believes that the demand for such bikes is higher than ever given the rise of India’s middle class. The time is nigh to not just build a new factory (which they did) and increase sales, but also to expand the brand’s offerings to turn Royal Enfield into an even more popular name globally.
London was the perfect place to experience the Continental GT given the locale’s rich history of café racing and Rock and Roll in the 1960s. By definition, café racers were born out of a Rock and Roll culture that promoted individualism, style and rebellion. Riders often cruised from one café to another, hence the name, and the bikes were as distinctive as their passengers, lean and minimalist with engines that didn’t brag big displacement numbers but still gave a modicum of performance.
The expanse of 30+ Continental GTs at the appropriately vintage moto-themed Ace Cafe in London — where we started our ride — was surely a sight to see. The bike is a looker, its bright red tank emblazoned with the slightly tweaked, still-traditional Royal Enfield lettering in simple white. The crisp and attractive exposed steel frame designed by Harris Performance and the bodywork by Xenophya both provide a retro silhouette that’s undisputedly masculine and artistic. The truly modern and noticeable bits reside in the Brembo brakes, Paioli shocks, fat fork tubes, and the large spoked rims. Nothing really seems overdone here, and it all comes together in a truly handsome motorcycle that anyone but Bubba wouldn’t hesitate to ride.
The Continental GT’s seat is comfortable, padded just enough for such a bike. The gauges are easy to read, and everything from the starter to the horn are in good position. Flicking the starter switch results in a low burble that won’t necessarily get huge attention, but that’s not the expectation, anyway. The air-cooled, fuel injected single-stroke engine generates 29.1 horsepower at 5,100 rpm — nothing earth-shattering, but the bike isn’t mean to be track king, a straight line rocket or a highway cruiser. The GT’s engine is a modern 535cc UCE (Unit Construction Engine) that’s derived from the older Bullet cast iron engine that’s no longer in service. The UCE is smaller, more reliable and is more efficient, while keeping with the Bullet tradition by providing good lowe end torque. It moves around city streets and local roads easily, and the torque kicks in well just above 2,000 rpm. It tops out at around 80-85 mph on the highway, but this isn’t its element: the Continental GT stays true to its café racer roots. The engine’s sweet spot resides somewhere around 40-50 mph, and it’s at this speed where the bike feels most at home, entirely comfortable and easy to use around the city.
On the way to the Brooklands Auto Museum and then on to scenic Brighton Beach, we weaved through city streets and open roads, peppered by bad traffic and flat-out open roads. The Continental remained comfortable and predictable throughout, and the sheer number of onlookers outnumbered even our smiles throughout the day. The suspension is compliant over bumps and the handling is solid and predictable. Plant yourself on the comfortable but simple seat and set your knees alongside the back end of the tapered tank and you can ride for hours. No one had expectations of breaking any speed records, but the experience of riding a surprisingly comfortable modern motorcycle with a vintage feel isn’t something you come across every day, and that’s where the Continental GT shines. What’s more, this beautiful bike and the singular experience it imparts are also a thrifty hipster’s dream, seriously undercutting the price of other vintage-style bikes like the Triumph Bonneville by thousands.
Royal Enfield has delivered a motorcycle that does more than just get your from one point to another. It’s a bike that is less about making the rider’s leg’s rubbery through screaming acceleration and more about making him happy to ride by eagerly and earnestly lending a feel of the classic motoring past and imparting a style rarely found in most motorcycles today. Royal Enfield is onto something, and the Continental GT should prove to be an excellent choice for the brand’s grand debut of a café racer that’s been a long time coming.