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You asked for it: My Buell experience.

By Motorcycle.Com Staff, Jun. 09, 2004
As mentioned on an earlier Buell thread, I took the somewhat ill advised step of renting an XB12R Firebolt for a ride from Hallandale, FL to Key West...


As mentioned on an earlier Buell thread, I took the somewhat ill advised step of renting an XB12R Firebolt for a ride from Hallandale, FL to Key West. Why? Just because I could. And also because those cool-looking little bikes had stirred so much controversy here. Kind of like subjecting yourself to medical experiments, I know, but the latest Buells had tickled my curious bone. And this was the best opportunity I was going to have to find out what was what as far as the oft-leveled criticism of those whove never ridden one and the passionate defenses of Buell-lovers were concerned. Ah, well, tis better than nothing.

As, for me, I must admit I wanted to like the bike. So I cant claim total objectivity entering my experience. However, I had also read all every word written about the tractor motorweird-handlingclunky gearbox and alien ergos. So I figured I had been suitably poisoned from both sides. It should be a wash, right?

A disclaimer: Obviously, this was not the best proving ground to test a bike such as the Firebolt. Nor am I the rider to properly test it. No real high performance riding was done in the three days I had possession of the bike (Friday-Sunday). I only had a few opportunities to stretch the Bolt out at all. And aside from a few banked curves on Rt. 1, a great, sweeping banked cloverleaf circle entering the Florida Turnpike, and some mildly spirited riding-- including several evasive maneuvers--on the streets and highways of greater Miami, I didnt get anywhere close to the handling limit. Consider this a real-world impression of the bike. If youre looking for a track-day autopsy, ya aint gonna find it here.

Friday: After a 7:20 a.m. flight from Long Island (for which I had to rise at an ungodly hour of the morning), I was eager to meet my companion for the weekend. Once I filled out the requisite paperwork at the dealer, I was shown to the back where a pristine red-with-amber-rimmed XB12R was parked. One thing you can say about the new Buells, they look good. Even with that ultra-short wheelbase, they are a nice balance of simple shapes, subtle curves, and some drama in the right places (I, for one, love the look of the massive, gun-metal-finished, aluminum-spar frame/fuel tankit looks like nothing else). It also has its share of strangeness--but in a good way. Fit and finish, for those whove never seen the bike up close, is pretty good, surprisingly. Although, I did notice an extra-wide gap between the seat and faux fuel tank. The bodywork is all plastic, but the finish was nice and everything looked pretty good. The decals are kind of cheesy and the amber windscreen may be a bit much, but thats nitpicking Were off to a good start, I think.

Then it was time for me to throw a leg over to get my pre-flight briefing from the dealers rental agent. I really wasnt paying attention. I just was just thinking about starting the damn thing. But, sitting there astride the stubby XB, my daydreaming was interrupted by a disconcerting thought: This thing feels strange. And not in a good way. Uh oh.

Instead of sitting in the bike, or rather, feeling like part of the bike, I was sitting awkwardly atop it. Kind of like sitting on the back of a genetically mutated beetle. Now, I know 400 lbs. is light for a motorcycle, but it makes a freakin big, ugly insect. While the rental agent blathered on about, come to think of it, I dont know whatoh yeah, starting procedures, I was entertaining this mental image of me riding atop a giant bug. This really bothered me. But I digress.

Ive got to ride this thing over 400 miles in the next couple of days? Were leaving for Key West tomorrow and Ive got all day and night to contemplate this torture. Everyone told me I was crazy. Hell, even the rental agent is looking at me like Im a little nuts. Why didnt I take the several well-intentioned hints? Well, because Im a little nuts. And now Im going to pay.

Im starting to feel sick. A deep breath and then some of my home-brewed Cliff Notes Dianetics: Okay, so Im a little uncomfortable with it right now. But, I reason, a good amount of this is just unfamiliarity. Once we fire the puppy up, Im sure Ill feel better. Nothing like a roaring engine to brace any uncertainty. I just complete the thought when the rental agent Ive paid absolutely no attention tells me to start her up. I, of course, forget to turn the engine switch on. Okay, lets try that again. Key switched to On. Engine switch on. Wait for the red light to go out. Thumb the starter and

WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!? Is it supposed to sound like a 30-year-old Maytag? Does it need a tune-up? I expected the accompanying teeth-rattling (which, at idle, it does a wonderful job of), but can I at least get a cool exhaust note to go with my order of violent shuddering?

Time for a little test ride. (Do I have to?) Clutch: The pull is a little heavy, but not a problem for me. Shifting: A problem for me. The gearbox is, how shall I say, sucky? I cant bang through the gears worth a damn. Short shifting in my normal way is nearly impossible. And finding neutral that first day was roughly akin to the 15th century search for a direct route to the Indies: It only happens by accident and its not where its supposed to be. The only time I found the elusive green N that entire first day was on upshifts. Not good.

Well, Im in waist deep, now, I mumble to myself. Might as well ride the thing for the day. If its as bad as it seems, Ill bring it back and exchange it for something like, gasp, a Dyna-Glide. Im terrified at the thought of the tittering and I told you so looks of my riding partners, one of which happens to be my egomaniacal brother. I return from my test ride looking fairly confident and content. Other than a lurch-inducing throttlemost likely caused by a very small amount of freeplay in the action and my unfamiliarity with the bikeI report that everything is a-okay. Seemingly triumphant, we head off to a most appropriate breakfast stopDennys.

On the way to Dennys Im struggling with this strange warthog. Its so short it feels like a unicycle. I almost feel like Im sitting directly over the front wheel, which, of course, I almost am. This causes me to instinctively sit further back on the bike than I would normally. With the non-compliant tranny and my bumbling with the throttle, I have a couple of lightly jarring moments when the little sucker feels like it wants to rear up and toss me onto the tarmac of Rt. 1. But as far as anyone can tell, Im having a grand old time. A passing motorist yells from his car approvingly Hey man, that bikes the sh*t! Uh huh.

My breakfast sits half-eaten. My stomach is in knots while I think about the impending doom that most certainly awaits me the next day should I decide to soldier on. This draws the attention of everyone, including the waitress. I make a lame excuse about not feeling that well. And I didnt.

We pay the bill and saddle up for the 10-mile trip to my brothers place in Hallandale. I figure this will make or break the Buell and me. I wobble out of the parking lot and, suddenly, begin to have an epiphany. I finally realize that Im sitting too far back on the bike, so I scoot up tight against the tank. At that moment I also remember something I read on MO: When shifting the XB, be more deliberate. So I slow down my shifting and think, like a moron, clutch pull-shift-smooth clutch release-throttle. Seems to work! And while this may not be ideal by sportbike standards, the Bolts reservoir of torque seems to make up for my leisurely shift practices. As the RPMs increase, the motor smoothes out the shuttering until Ive got a nice, almost liquid power delivery. Each upshift brings very satisfying and mellow power pulses I think I can feel being delivered directly to the road via the rear wheel. Holy sh*t, this could be fun!

Now that Ive got the whole body position/shifting think somewhat sorted out, I decide to stretch my new friends legs a bit. Nothing too crazy, mind you, but a little carefree highway cruising. I drop her down to third, give it some juice, rev her up, and move through fourth and on into fifth. Traffic wont allow much more than 75 mph but the damn thing is really starting to feel good. I cant believe it. It was even starting to make some cool noises. Now, if I could only find neutral at a stoplight.

The rest of the day brings some street riding between Hallandale and South Beach. As you Miamians probably know, many drivers there are sh*t. I didnt. Instead of merging in an orderly fashion, they stop and then carelessly dart into traffic. Turn signals are clearly optional. And always beware of cars parked on the side of the road that make seemingly 90-degree turns into traffic. A Jeep Cherokee performing this miraculous maneuver almost ended my budding relationship with the Buell in a most violent fashion. Fortunately, the brakes on the XB saved my bacon, and even my ham foot, which I swear locked up the rear brake, couldnt do me in. The Bolt tracked straight as an arrow, hauling me down from about 50 so I could take evasive measures. If that werent bad enough, a stoner in a panel van later almost made meat spread out of me when he ran across two lanes to make a left into a hotel. Once again, the Buell was heroic.

Our little street riding adventure was enough to hint that the chassis was up to at least some of the hype. It was confidence inspiring and the steering was telepathic (for the limited amount of little steering that was necessary).

After about an hour and a half of this lunacy, while fondly remembering the courteous and highly skilled cagers back home in New York, I realized that I wasnt aching anywhere. At least not yet. With a short reach to the clip-ons that are placed at a most rational and flat angle, my wrists didnt hurt one bit. My often-creaky back didnt protest either. And even my sports-abused knees felt fine despite the fairly high-and-rear sets. Most surprisingly, the initially troubling seat was pretty damn comfortable. Now I realize that Im not particularly talla towering 59and Im pretty physically strong, so results may vary. Besides, an hour and a half is one thing, the real test would be the ride to Key West.

Saturday: Obviously the Firebolt isnt meant for touring. Or sport-touring. Even if youre pulling it behind you in a trailer. But I dont know if the stars were aligned in just the right way or Eric Buells guardian angel was sitting on my shoulder, but, for the most part, the bike was downright comfy, at least for me. We did make several stops along the way to Key West for some photo-ops, food, and re-hydration. And hour-long stretches along a mostly straight Rt. 1 didnt do wonders for blood flow, but believe it or not, I faired at least as well as my Victory V92SC-mounted brother, and significantly better than our Harley Sportster-mounted, semi-novice buddy, Glen. (A side note: The Sportster is also not a choice ride for this trip, but Glen was forced to take it when the Dyna Low Rider he hoped for was not available.) During the final leg of the trip, the aches and pains started to come on. My knees started to ache, and the V-Twins vibrations were starting cause an odd kind of numb ache in the palms of my hands. A break for dinner solved that. Refreshed, we headed the last 25 miles to Key West. When we arrived in the hotel parking lot, I noticed two things: 1.) Two guys spying the Firebolt and talking excitedly. 2.) My brother and Glen walking kind of funny. Curiously, I felt fine.

Oh, and quite amazingly, I somehow managed to find the secret passage to NeutralLand. I dont know if the bike decided to be more compliant after a good day of running and warm-up, or if I just got it through my thick head that I need to be more delicate with the shifter, but I was lighting the green light regularly. It still wasnt great, but it was manageable.

Sunday: After an ill-advised night on Duvall Street, and a too-long complimentary breakfast earned when our original room turned out to be occupied by another unsuspecting guest in the middle of a shower, we were off to a late start. We had to get back to Ft. Lauderdale by 3:00 p.m. to return the bikes and then make our flight home. What to do now? Well, we proceeded to further screw ourselves by taking a ride around the island to take some cheesy tourist photos. No problem, just a good excuse to ride faster on the way home.

The ride back to Ft. Lauderdale was even more fun than the previous days ride. The weather was glorious and I, now very comfortable with the bike, was having a ball blasting across the myriad of undulating bridges, in full racing tuck, surrounded by spectacular views of the crystal blue-green water. I dont think I ever got over about an indicated 85 mph-- the traffic and a wariness for Johnny Law wouldnt allow it--but the Firebolt had plenty more to give. Ive heard that the Bolt only has about a 1500 RPM-spread of usable power. I didnt think so. While it doesnt have the widest powerband, it is more than adequate for real world riding. And with its loping, unfrenzied power-delivery and ample torque, it made a pretty good highway bike. Just put it in fifth and twist.


Speaking of highways, despite its ultra-compact stance, the little bugger was remarkably stable at speed. Even riding into a fairly strong headwind on the Florida Turnpike didnt seem to bother it much. I did get pushed around by some particularly strong gusts, but it was never scary. Thats more than I can say for Glen who was getting very spooked trying to keep up with me in our mad rush back to our respective drop locations. The Sporty was skating all over the road. I had to slow down so as not to lose him, which was very disconcerting when two ZX-6s blew by me. As far as the fabled standing up under braking syndrome goes, I thought I detected this when I overcooked a curve on Rt. 1. Then again, it could have been my crap riding. I cant solve this mystery. Thats best left to the professionals and a proper test.

I finally got back to the Harley dealer at a little after 4:00. I was over an hour late. The place seemed to be locked up tight. What to do now? Well, I would have never believed it two days ago, but I just figured Id change my flight to the next day, inform the good people at my work that Id be returning a day later, and spend some more time hammering the Buell around. Just as I was putting my helmet back on, the garage door in the back of the dealership opened. Rental dude was still inside tending to some other late returners and had seen me on the security camera. I actually felt disappointed.

He asked, Well, how was it?
Well, I replied, the gearbox needs serious work, it shakes like hell at idle, and its kinda weird. But, damn, it was a blast.

And then the real kicker. I think I would own one.

And thats the moral of the story, kiddies. And its one weve heard from the Buellisti often. The bike may not be a spec-sheet darling. It may not be, in its current guise, a great racebike. There are certainly better overall sportbikes out there. But, its unique and fun. And even taken in light of its various flaws, its a damn good time.

But this again leads us to the grand conundrum: How much better could it be? Sampling the potential of this bike makes me wonder even more how it would do with a more modern engine.

And I wasnt lying. I would own oneif the price werent so steep. So everyone who thinks that Buells suck, keep thinking that way. I just might be able to pick up a leftover next year at a price I can stomach.
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Motorcycle.com Staff
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