CAFÉ RACER A LA CRÈME
The whimsical GT makes you go and play, because you want to
Words | Michael Cowton
TECHNOLOGY EXISTS FOR the creative common good, or so we have convinced ourselves. The internet and social media app gods are content to leave us adrift in a cyberspace bereft of human contact, as we remain consumed by daily advances from the digital kingdom.
We have stood as willing bystanders while the corporate fatcats have continued to manipulate the tectonic shift in our daily lives and habits. Slowly but surely, we have become a part of the techno apparatchik, failing to lift our heads from our smartphones and Apple watches, for fear of missing the next text message. It is seemingly impossible to stop the advance of technology, even when it trips over itself. So a question. How often do you put your computer into sleep mode after a working day, then continue to react to the pinging of emails on your cell phone? I thought so.
Time for a reality check. The British come out tops as the worst offenders for spending extended hours at their desks. It would seem that enjoying free time is somewhat of a guilty pleasure. Sickness, depression, crippling back pain, heart ailments and mental health problems are all associated with overwork. The forecast, if you did not already know it, is Burnout.
My daughter sleeps with her cell phone on her pillow. Snapchat, Facebook and text alerts are her nightly companions from hell. It has become a daily occurrence to witness people stalking Britain’s high streets with heads down, coffee in one hand, texting with the other, oblivious to their surroundings. They ignore pedestrian crossings, walk in front of oncoming traffic, and then offer two fingers to any irate motorcyclist who has nearly ploughed into them. As long as you did not miss that last text. That is all right then. But no, it is not.
No question about it, technology has taken over our lives, and it is also on the cusp of taking over our minds and our freedom of spirit. But we still have the power to switch off the phone and walk away, if we are brave enough. So here is the rub. I challenge you to do exactly that. After leaving work on a Friday, switch off your mobile, or, if you are not strong-willed enough to do that, at least switch it to silent mode, then ignore those incoming emails until Monday morning looms large once again. Unthinkable, I know. During your 48-hour weekend stretch, make time for yourself and your bike. Plan a micro adventure. It does not have to be far from home. Breathe in the fresh air, and if it happens to be raining, sod it, don the waterproofs and brave the elements anyway. You will feel a whole lot better for the experience, believe me.
But what steed, you ask? Technology, somewhat insidiously, has infiltrated our biking world, with modern iterations overwhelming us with gizmos: leaning ABS, linked braking systems, electronic quickshifters, heated hand grips, crash apps… the list goes on. It begs the question: How much do we need, and how much do we actually use?
This literary preamble brings me nicely to Royal Enfield, who have kicked against the mainstream with the Continental GT, keeping things nice and simple and uncomplicated. Modern technology? To hell with that. With the Continental you get Bosch dual-channel ABS, and that’s it. Seriously. Time to play, and you know exactly what you are playing with. The bike is retro and cool and uber familiar and, of course, boasts a significant heritage, proudly taking a step back from the real world. Instead it leads us into a world of whimsy. Climb aboard and away you go. It’s something you just do because you want to. So, is this bike out of step with the real world? Who cares. Doubters would be missing a trick because this is a bike for the carefree and impulsive.
The Continental is also a dichotomy. It’s old school, yet it’s brand new. It carries RE’s most powerful twin-cylinder engine to date, the new air-cooled 650 parallel twin, driven by a six-speed gearbox. That’s a first for the brand, too. With the exhaust offering a familiar note straight from the 60s, the bike oozes the nostalgic café racer silhouette of the period, yet packs in its steel tubular frame a raft of refined modern engineering. You can expect 80% of the torque arriving before 2500rpm, and it will rev all the way to the redline when pushed, maxing out at a ton.
Ah, that magical figure, the go-to speed for leather-clad café racers of old who would carve up the Tarmac from one café to the next with the aim of becoming a member of the exclusive ‘Ton-Up Boys’. Forget the frills, it was a simple case of thrills on a quick burst between the Busy Bee in Watford and the Ace Café in Stonebridge. Oh, nostalgia. I am proud to say I made it into that hallowed fraternity. No badge of honour, just a feeling of satisfaction, and a certain level of smugness.
I never dreamt that it would happen again, but the Continental brought back the hooligan in me. Feet planted on the rear-set foot pegs, canted over the sculpted tank and hands gripping the clip-ons, with the beautiful sound of the exhaust rumbling away, and suddenly the nerves had gone and I found myself carving bends before powering away from following traffic, spitting gravel with a joie de vivre. A rough-neck rider enjoying raw emotion.
Being A2-licence friendly, there’s only 47bhp on offer, but that’s fine. The advantage of the six-speed means I could drop a couple of gears for overtakes, before opening the throttle to the next bend, when the slip-assist clutch would come into play, mitigating the effects of engine braking on fast deceleration. Back on a straight, I wind it up, and wind it up some more, and the needle heads towards the magic mark, and goodness me this is exhilarating.
I find my confidence surprisingly boosted by the Pirelli Phantom Sportcomp tyres, which offer excellent grip and control on entry into bends. The finely tuned suspension also comes in as edgy and impulsive, but still with a comfortable feel, and it all adds to the dynamic ride.
Mentioning comfort, that might be questionable for some because this bike is a café racer by its very nature. It has a low (790mm) seat, which favours those that like to plant two feet on the ground, and if your preference is for sliding back in the seat and leaning forward towards those retro clocks, whilst taking a firm grip on the clip-on handlebars, you will be in your element, even though you may find that the back of your neck is somewhat creaky if you spend overly long in the saddle.
In a nutshell, it’s a 21st century café racer a la crème, and, quite literally, a ton of fun and ideal for biker meets and Sunday bursts. It also about passes muster as a commuter, if you are happy to carry your lunchbox in a knapsack. But then that kind of spoils the overall look, if you get my drift. And yes, of course you can opt for something roughly similar in styling, such as the new Triumph Bonneville Thruxton R, which again offers the real deal in terms of a modern classic café racer and knocks the socks off the Continental when it comes down to power and performance. Oh yes, don’t let’s forget the 160-plus custom-inspired Triumph accessories on offer for that personal touch. Really? To my mind, it’s either a café racer with that stripped-back refinement, or it isn’t. Plus you are going to pay in excess of £11,000 for the privilege, and the fun suddenly starts to trickle away along with your cash.
So often I have reached the trailhead and turned left when the arrow indicated right. A path less travelled indeed. Not knowing what is round the next corner is all part of the attraction, for then you take nothing for granted. To quote Mark Twain: ‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’ And he didn’t give Huck Finn a smartphone when he floated down the Mississippi on a makeshift raft with the runaway slave.
ROYAL ENFIELD CONTINENTAL GT 650 TWIN
Price: From £5,699 OTR
- Engine: Parallel twin, 648cc 4-stroke, SOHC, air-oil cooled
- Power: 47bhp (35kW) @ 7,250rpm
- Torque: 38.4 lb-ft (52Nm) @ 5,250rpm
- Gearbox: 6 speed
- Frame: Steel tubular, double cradle
- Suspension: (F) 41mm, 110mm travel (R) Twin coil-over shocks, 88mm travel, 5-stage preload adjustment
- Weight: 198kg dry
- Brakes: (F) 320mm single disc (R) 240mm single disc
- Wheels/tyres: 18-inch alloy-rimmed wheels. (R) Pirelli Phantom Sportcomp 100/90 18 (L) 100/70 18
- Seat height: 790mm
- Fuel capacity: 12.5 litres