Common Tread

How to review a bike Lem-lem-style

May 16, 2016

“Ride the shit out of it.”

That’s how I review a bike for RevZilla. If I had to boil the whole thing down to one sentence, that’s the one. If given my druthers, I would simply get a bike and ride it until a major component failed. Simply spending time with the bike — riding, wrenching, even just looking at it — is the number one way for me to get the bike to tell me its secrets.

When we’re given a bike to review, the first thing I start weaseling is time and education. The more time I can get with the bike, the more tidbits I can tease out of it. And the more the manufacturer’s reps can tell me about it, the better. (Especially the engineers. I love them. They always say more than the PR dudes want them to.)

Testing a bike
Keeping an open mind is paramount. While I would not have expected to go ga-ga for the BMW S 1000 XR, I was pleasantly surprised to find it impressing me at every turn. RevZilla photo.

For me, the first impression is really important. I jot notes on a day-by-day basis when I meet a new bike so I don’t forget what I was thinking or feeling. I like to really document that part well. Those first feelings may change, but I like to have them handy because for a lot of riders, that “first impression” might be all they get of that bike before they open their checkbooks.

When I’m riding, I like to intentionally vary my riding style. I’ll ride hard, hitting every apex like I think Ago would have, playing windshield wiper with the tach. Then I’ll go into putt-putt mode, lugging every gear and short shifting, intentionally trying to find out how frenetic or easygoing a machine might be. I ask the machines to do things that are outside their advertised skillset. Sure, I use the right tool for a job, but I suppose I am still old enough that I expect every motorcycle to have some "do-it-all" qualities.

Inappropriate long-hauler
Is it appropriate to take a Scout on an interstate camping trip? Many riders have one bike that gets pressed into service for a variety of duties. We try to test bikes the same way potential owners might likely use them. RevZilla photo.

Once I start getting familiar with a bike, I’ll start “playing.” That might be as simple as using the rpm/gear indicator on the Sporty we reviewed, or running through all the electronic suspension, traction control, and stability assistance modes the BMW S 1000 XR was equipped with. I’m usually looking for the extremes when I start. That can mean dialing in a bundle of preload on a shock or making a fork clicker super-soft, just to see what’s available at either end of the spectrum. From there, I usually home in on the settings that are most appropriate.

Another thing I really prefer is riding the bike in some different weather conditions. High winds can really affect some bikes, and my opinion of a tire is very likely to change if it doesn’t handle wet weather well. Mama Nature doesn’t always cooperate, so we don’t always get a chance to ride every bike in every type of weather, but if I can get it out in the mucky stuff, I will.

I also like to see if the manufacturers are being honest and accurate with some of their claims. Reserve mileage is a real-world number that needs to be tested, so when I do that I try to make sure I have a fuel bottle with me. When we tested the Victory Empulse TT, for instance, I couldn’t come close to matching their claimed range figure. It’s not always little stuff, too — Spurg tested the Triumph Street Twin and was having trouble shifting into the sixth gear the factory literature said he had. It turns out the trans was a five-speed!

When the day is through, I’ll often pop open a beer and just pull up a chair and eyeball the bike. There’s a surprising amount to be learned from just looking. Sometimes I’ll spot a different tire on a bike than the one that’s supposed to be there, or an adjustment feature or construction technique that’s uncommon. Sometimes it’s just little idiosyncrasies. For instance, when I was on the Indian Scout, I felt like the digital tach couldn’t keep up with the engine revs. A year later, on the Victory Octane, which uses a similar setup, I realized we had an auxiliary analog tach. Sitting in the garage, I was able to confirm — and capture — the difference in read speeds. It’s little stuff, but I try to absorb as much as I can to bring back and report on.

Wait, those tachs say different things! No wonder I kept banging off the rev limiter on this bike's cousin. RevZilla photo.

The final thing I pay attention to is my fun level. I have my predilections and peccadilloes. All of us do. But I like to think that I am open-minded enough to have fun on dang near anything with wheels. I try to calibrate that, too. Do I have the best time ever on smaller bikes? No, but I have been riding for a bit and I’m fat as a house. There are also lots of bikes that are better motorcycles than I am a rider. I hope my style of conveying my findings makes it clear that I’m not a “moto insider,” but instead, some regular guy who just really loves motorcycles. As much as I might want to be the fastest guy on the track or a master wrench or a dirt champion, I’m not. I just dream of that like all of us do.

Lemmy tests the Yamaha XSR900
The one thing I always want more of with a test bike is time. Time to ride it hard in all conditions and see how it holds up, because that's what owners will do with it. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Lance and Spurg do this way differently than I do. They’re better organized, more articulate in synthesizing their ride developments, and better/faster/more skilled riders. 

But I stand by my methods. I'm running these bikes through the wringer like I think Joe Everyman does. It's the only way I know how, really.

If there’s anything you think I should cover and don’t, or you want to know more specifically how I do things, drop me a comment down below. I promise to address as many as I can reasonably.