So it's bike-show time of year. That meant an early start for me, as I didn't want to miss it, stopping off to pick up my friend Nick on the way. What? No, I didn't ride there this year. I did almost every year for the 17 years when I was on the bike mags (apart from one year when I couldn't get off the drive because of the snow). I'd go to extravagant lengths to hang onto that year's long-term test bike until the show, conducting my own unscientific strawpoll in the bike park, finding out what people parking next to me thought about whatever machine it was (Most interested: Ducati ST3; least interested: Suzuki Bandit 1250S - still an underrated bike!) But now I don't have to make a bike dirty, I thought I'd make the car dirty instead for once.
I wanted to see a number of bikes at the show – not getting to ride on launches is the one thing I miss about having left the mags (though as Chad – Adam Child – pointed out when I bumped into him at the show, it's still lots of travel and graft but now has added masses of Covid tests and paperwork to knock any vestiage of fun or glamour out of the process). Anyway, going to the show – as I did before getting to work on bike mags – is still the best way to get a quick comparison of the bikes your like.
And I like a lot of bikes this year. The Suzuki sportstourer was high on my list of must-see machines. I know the original version of the engine, both from its time powering an era-defining GSX-R sportsbike and then when it appeared in the naked and half-faired GSX-S models: it's a peach. My complaint about the half-faired GSX-S1000F was that it wasn't enough of a sports tourer: the GT seems to address that. Comfy seating position, with comfortably raised handlebars and a relaxed bend at the knee; the integrated panniers seem to be a good size. Good control layout and a decent looking screen... but why isn't it adjustable? That's the only thing I'd query on it... I'd love to get a ride on it.
Show horn: 9 out of 10
I was equally interested in the new Honda NT1100 - the lightweight, chain-driven tourer that uses the excellent Africa Twin engine. I'm not 100% sold on the styling – that broad top looks a bit scooterish to my eyes – and I was really put off by some of the details. The panniers look pretty small (Can you get a large full-face crash helmet inside?) and the left-hand bar was a crowded muddle of buttons and rocker switches. Plus when I sat on it, I instantly felt like Gulliver in some kind of halway-to-Lilliput location, where motorcycles are about 15% smaller than you expect: for what looked like quite a big bike, it felt very tiny. "That looks small for you," noted Nick. It did, but it still looked purposeful – like a bike capable of shrinking big distances easily. I'm still very interested in it.
Show horn: 7 out of 10
One bike that has a name implying big distances is the Harley-Davidson Pan America. I've seen a couple out and about over the summer and, I have to admit, it has grown on me. Well, the looks have. A bit. But getting up close to it, the detail on it looked really good too. As far as you can judge with a bike bolted to the floor, I liked the riding position - both seated and standing. Everything felt high quality and I did like all the accessories... though not how much they cost: more than £4400 (though okay, I'd save myself £826 for the spoked wheels because they're a pain in the arse to clean!). Okay, the headlight/styling is challenging but it's growing on me. In fact, I increasingly think it looks like the mutt's nuts.
Show horn: 8 out of 10
There were a couple of bikes at the show that didn't tickle my fancy as much as expected. The KTM 890s didn't excite me and though I love the 1290 Super Adventure, it's not a new bike. I thought half the BMWs were in I-wouldn't-buy-it colours (though the Motorsport paint jobs were nice) but there wasn't anything new-and-exciting apart from the monster cruiser-tourer R18s that don't float my boat. I had expected to get frothingly enthusiastic about the Husqvarna Norden but I didn't like it in the metal. Maybe it's one of those bikes makes sense from the saddle, not static on a show stand.
As ever, there were plenty of bikes from smaller manufacturers that – dreadful cynic that I am, now I don't have to report unbiasedly on them – I hurried past. But I'm never going to buy a small-capacity Chinese motorcycle or a scooter or a three-wheeler or an electric bike. I just want to concentrate on the appealing bikes from names I know and trust.
There was also a big display of unicorns... sorry, Nortons. Who knows, maybe this next incarnation will produce real bikes that real people can ride, without costing anyone their pension? I hope they succeed. Same goes for both the Royal Enfields and the revived BSA range... Not my cup of tea, but pleasant enough and they look like they're sensibly priced, properly finished and right for people wanting a steady, sunny Sundy stead.
If I was going for something retro, there's no doubt it would have a Japanese logo on the tank. I loved the Z900RS when it first appeared (and this year's old-school paint jobs look even sweeter) but I'd possibly be tempted by the new Z650RS - based on the same parallel twin as the Versys and Ninja 650. It just looks like a straightforward, unpretentious, fun little bike. I know I'd get carried away on the big one, but this looks like you'd have fun all day then enjoy polishing it.
Show horn: 7 out of 10
One bike on which I would definitely get carried away – and gladly – is the new Ducati Multistrada V4 Pikes' Peak. Who cares that it's more than £24,000 when it looks like that, has carbon and high-performance spec like that and – most importantly – when it has a seating position like that. I think it'd fit me like a glove and anyone who says a 6ft 5in human's too big for it is clearly wrong... It's crazy powerful, crazy expensive and I would very much like to have a play with one – on a European mountain, rather than Pikes' Peak with its low speed limit. You just know this one would be SO much fun...
Show horn: 10 out of 10
One final bike really caught my eye: the prototype of the new Triumph Tiger 1200. It looks – to my eyes – extremely good, in that it's clearly gone on a diet even Adele would envy. There are nice little details – even on the prototype – though the spoked 21in front wheel gives me a moment's pause. That's all well and good for hardcore offroading, but I've enjoyed every previous 1200 as a great road tour (each one better than the one before). I hope the road maners and the capability haven't been sacrified in favour of off-road prowess that'll be useful to about 0.6% of the potential buyers. And I hope there's going to be a cast-wheeled, road-focused version. Who knows... maybe even a big-tanked thing to rival a GS Adventure? One thing's for sure: this think looks like it's more than capable of giving a standard GS a black eye...
Show horn: 9 out of 10
Two things I did miss at the show: Yamaha (which had a small clothing shop with a Tracer 9 GT parked outside) and the big kit importers. In the past, the likes of Nevis and MotoDirect have had stands with the newest gear on display. Even Oxford has had a big showcase for the latest accessories and clothing. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but I always enjoyed looking at – and finding out about – the latest kit at the show. For me, it was a third of the reason to visit... but this year there's just the retail section, with everything from Rukka suits to the kind of budget kit I wouldn't want to be wearing if I fell off a kitchen stool, never mind a motorbike. I know there's still lots of premium kit... I just wish it had been showcased.
Even so, Nick and I enjoyed the show. It's good to walk around, see the kit, catch up with a few old friends and have a day that's basically just indulging the passion for bikes. Go along and see what you think – and maybe let me know your top six show stoppers.