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Bike Review - Posted 31st March 2014
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Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI 500 on Tour

Nick Adams took an Enfield Electra on a two week tour of the UK in March. The bike performed rather better than he expected. The British weather, however...

I should have known that my hiking gear wouldn't be much use on the motorbike. It took less than an hour of riding for it to become obvious that I was going to be woefully underdressed for the next two weeks. People had warned me that riding in Britain in March might be a bit chilly, but I hadn't been prepared to listen. I was used to the weather at home in Canada, after all…

I was in Langholm to pick up a rental Royal Enfield Bullet. I had stumbled upon A7 Motorcycles who rented bikes and conducted tours (although not any longer, unfortunately). I'd been hiking close by, so it seemed like a perfect fit. Although other rental places offered the typical selection of V-Stroms, BMWs and a host of other choices, it was the Enfield that really appealed to me. The 2010 version of the Royal Enfield Bullet 500 boasted a redesigned lean-burn long-stroke engine, modern fuel injection and a front disc brake. Other than these concessions to modernity, I had read that it retained the look, feel and economy of the earlier bikes, but with slightly better performance and decidedly better stopping power. I couldn't wait to find out for myself.

Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI 500 Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI 500

The bike was sitting ready in the middle of the showroom; a lovely rich, cherry red Bullet 500 with less than 3000 miles on the clock, with a robust rear rack and a large set of saddlebags. It took a while to fill the panniers, strap my rucksack to the rack and dress myself ready for the road. After a quick spin around a parking lot to get the feel of the bike, I felt confident enough to head south, making sure to take off on the left side of the road. At idle, the Enfield chuffed quietly through its enormous silencer. As I accelerated up to traffic speed, the note changed in volume and tone, but never managed the ear shattering roar of classic British bikes of the 1950s and 60s. It was muted; positively civilised.

The A7 leads south towards Carlisle and is a fast main road, so I had no alternative but to accelerate up to the ambient road speed and join the main traffic flow for a while. I was pleasantly surprised at how punchy the Bullet felt, pulling strongly up to 60mph with little apparent effort. Compared to the larger and heavier Moto Guzzis I ride in Canada, it felt light and responsive. However, without a windscreen and with a very comfortable but upright riding position, I was soon feeling the wind on my arms and chest. I was happy to leave the main road for slower and less heavily travelled byways.

Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI 500 Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI 500

I had arranged to stay with friends in York that night. It is only about 135 miles from Langholm to York - a distance that seemed entirely manageable, even after an early afternoon start. I had planned a route which weaved its way south-east, passing through Barnard Castle and pretty much avoiding all main roads. After half an hour I started to feel a bit cold. My boots were still damp from hiking and the cold was seeping up from my feet and chilling the rest of me. I pulled in to a field entrance, changed my socks and added another layer underneath my rain jacket.

At Barnard Castle I rode up on to the cobbled strip in the middle of Market Place and parked the bike. I needed two things: a bathroom, which I found just off Horse Market, and a couple of sausage rolls to give my depleted stomach something to work on. Like a cow or a goat, as long as my innards are churning away on something, I tend to stay warm.

I should have had four sausage rolls. An hour later, it was pitch black, pouring with rain, and cold. I wasn't exactly lost - more like just a bit unsure as to whether I was heading in the right direction. Rain had worked its way through my rain jacket; my arms and belly were soaked. My pants, which were a perfect length for hiking, were riding up on my knees so that the cuffs ended just above my boots. As they shed the rain and the spray from the road, they cleverly directed it into my boots. The leather gloves were now completely wet, clammy and cold.

The Enfield's headlight cast a pool of light ahead on the now narrow and twisty road. Fortunately everyone else seemed to have had the good sense to stay inside, because traffic was light and I more-or-less had the road to myself. Despite the discomfort, I suddenly found myself grinning inside my helmet. What on earth did I think I was doing, riding a strange (to me) bike, in the middle of nowhere, on the wrong (for me) side of the road, in the kind of darkness that only a wet night in Britain can produce, in an unremitting downpour? I was wet, cold and perhaps a bit lost. What was I doing?

I was having a whale of a time!

Soon enough I found some road signs which led me in the right direction. The rain was still coming down in sheets when I arrived in York to a warm welcome. I was completely restored when I set off for Norfolk next morning. My boots were still soggy, but the rain had stopped and the temperature had risen a couple of degrees, making riding almost pleasant.

Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI 500
Electras on Now...

It's about 170 miles from York to my friends' house in Norfolk. As before, I was avoiding main highways, picking secondary roads through farming country. It marginally increased the duration and distance of the ride but exponentially increased my enjoyment. The Enfield seemed to be running perfectly, the seat was comfortable, the riding position was 'British Standard' and for a while at least, my body temperature was neutral. I was starting to settle in and was rolling along nicely between Sleaford and Swineshead when a policeman signalled for me to pull in to a lay-by for 'roadside checks'.

He asked me for my licence and insurance, which I dutifully produced. When I handed over my Ontario motorcycle licence, the look on his face was priceless. I almost expected him to say: 'Hello, hello, hello, what's all this 'ere then,' but he didn't. He just looked perplexed until I explained that I was on holiday and the motorcycle was rented. It didn't take him long to corroborate my story but, to confuse him further, I then pulled out my British motorcycle licence (issued in 1983) and asked him if he could find out whether it was still valid. By now we were getting quite chummy, so he confirmed that it was still valid until 2021. I bade him good day and rode off, mindful of the speed limit, of course.

After an 'entertaining' evening with my friends, I had promised myself a ride up to the north Norfolk coast, visiting some of my favourite places on the way. So somewhat groggily, I wheeled the bike through the gate on to the road. As usual, the Enfield started instantly with the slightest push on the starter button. I was starting to approve of this bike.

Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI 500 Royal Enfield Bullet Electra in Norfolk

The Royal Enfield Bullet was beginning to win my heart. Trickling along winding, hedgerow enclosed lanes, it was completely in its element. This is why bikes like this were made: steady, reliable, light, economical, with a mellifluous exhaust note - what could be better? The sun even deigned to shine, albeit with the weakness typical of March, and was largely devoid of warmth.

The next leg of my journey involved a long haul down to Ashburton in Devon, in the shadow of Dartmoor. It was a 300-plus mile slog diagonally across southern England, which may not sound like much of a ride to North Americans, but let me tell you, in Britain, that can be a long, hard day. My main desire was to skirt London and to avoid as many town centres as I could.

Lest I overplay it though, I did quite enjoy myself, and once again, the bike performed flawlessly, purring along comfortably while sipping very little of the expensive go-juice. Although certainly not the fastest thing on the road, the Enfield had enough power and speed to avoid being an impediment to other road users. I didn't venture onto the motorway system yet. That ride was a blur of small towns and villages, low, rolling hills, traffic, diesel fumes and hedgerows. After the ride, I stayed a few days in Devon with friends.

When the time came to head north, my original idea had been to buckle down and complete the 450 miles back to Langholm in a single day, but nature had other plans. It was raining when I left, so instead of heading straight for the road north, I stopped at a farm supply store to beef up my riding gear with an industrial strength, day-glow workman's jacket and some heavy nylon rain pants. Foolishly I didn't think about my hands and feet as I was still warm from a substantial breakfast and my boots were completely dry.

Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI 500 Hiking gear. Warm enough for hiking, not for motorcycling.

It didn't take me long to realise my mistake. The rain kept coming down. Within minutes my gloves were a soggy mess and my hands were starting to get uncomfortably cold. My new rain gear was doing a great job of keeping my body protected, but it seemed as though every drop of moisture shed by the suit ended up draining straight into my boots. I'm generally quite resistant to the cold, but with the temperature hovering just above the freezing point and hard rain battering down, I hadn't travelled many miles before I was seriously chilled.

I pulled into a garage to fill the Enfield's fuel tank and was able to buy a roll of duct tape which I used to seal the junction between my rain pants and my boots. This helped a little, but of course, by this point my feet were so cold that keeping further water out made little difference. The duct tape really added to the aesthetic appeal of my ensemble.

The only good thing I have to say about that day's ride was that the Royal Enfield continued to hum along apparently unbothered by the cold and wet. The same could not be said for me. My hands were becoming numb and I started to have difficulty holding on to the handlebars. My fingers felt three times their normal size. Manipulating the clutch and the front brake was decidedly awkward.

In one of the small towns I found a clothing store that sold work gloves. Two thin pairs of wool gloves just about fit into bright orange rubber overgloves. It was the best I could come up with. With my hands gradually thawing, all my attention reverted to my feet which by now felt giant and weirdly spongy. The cold was moving steadily up my legs and my knees were beginning to freeze up. By the time I'd ridden the 137 miles to Swindon, I'd had enough. A cunning plan to hire a van was foiled: no hire place would rent to a foreigner with an Ontario licence and no fixed abode in the UK. I dragged my shivering body back on to the bike and carried on.

35 miles later, a sodden, shaking, frozen and perhaps a little incoherent motorcyclist wandered into the vestibule at the Stow-on-the-Wold Youth Hostel. That was quite enough nonsense for one day.

Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI 500

Come the morning, the bike was still where I had left it. Clearly nobody thought taking a motorcycle for a joy-ride in this weather was a good idea. Before throwing the bags and rucksack on the bike, I did a quick systems check. The oil level was still good, there were no nasty drips staining the municipal pavement and the tyres had plenty of air. The chain was rather loose though, so I unpacked the toolkit from the toolbox and set to. For some reason there wasn't a tool to fit the wheel nuts, but I managed to borrow one.

Within ten or fifteen minutes I was on the road and heading for Scotland. The rain had stopped, the skies had cleared, and while it would be stretching the truth to say that it was warm, at least it wasn't dangerously cold with no sign of the light snow flurries I'd experienced the day before (yep, forgot to mention that earlier). As before, I opted to eschew major highways, sticking to less well travelled A and some B-roads before heading into the more industrial landscapes of Warrington and Wigan.

I'm not sure whether it was because of my increased confidence in the bike, or my desire to pick up the pace a bit, but after Wigan, I joined the M6 motorway for the long haul up through Lancashire along the western edge of the Pennines. British motorways have a speed limit of 70mph so of course most people travel well north of 80. I had no intention of thrashing the Enfield at those speeds and settled in comfortably between 60 and 65, along with the most heavily laden lorries, old Bedford camper vans and geriatric grannies in Nissan Micras.

In typical orderly British fashion (or so the mythology goes, at least), faster vehicles pass on the right and nobody passes on the left, so while riding a motorbike at slower than ambient traffic speeds isn't all that advisable, it isn't actually all that dangerous either. You are not likely to get some crazed speeder suddenly switching to the left lane to manoeuver past a sluggish pantechnicon. That may happen in less civilized countries, but in Britain? Never!

I actually felt surprisingly comfortable and safe and the Enfield didn't seem to mind spinning along at that speed at all. It's a matter of focus really. As a motorcyclist, if you think you should be able to match or exceed the speed of the rest of the traffic, then a Royal Enfield is clearly not for you and you would hate it. If you are content to bumble along with the rest of the world zooming past and not care at all, it's really a very fine motorcycle.

By the time I left the M6 and headed in to the town of Kendal at the southern edge of the Lake District, the cold had seeped back into my bones, so I was happy to encounter a whole string of B&Bs on the road into town. I hadn't expected the trip from Devon to Langholm to take three days, but this was the only pace my body would allow. By the end of each day my reserves of stamina and body heat were entirely exhausted and no matter how warm the pub or bedroom, I would continue to shiver well into the night.

Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI 500 Royal Enfield Bullet Electra at Shap Fell

On leaving Kendal, the road rises almost immediately, crossing the shoulder of Shap Fell and reaches 1400ft, which doesn't sound like much until you consider the weather which races in from the Irish Sea. Until the construction of the M6, the A6 over Shap used to be the main road between England and Scotland, a route that was legendary for brutal winter weather. Fortunately for me, the sun was shining, so even if there was a bit of frost on the road and I had to watch for black ice, Shap was being relatively benign.

The last few miles became a blur and no specific events or memories stand out. I deposited the bike with A7, settled up, retrieved my gear, and ended my ride. If there's a lesson to be learned from this brief adventure, it's that gear which is perfectly suitable for hiking is completely inadequate on a motorbike. Before I started riding the Enfield, I had been hiking and rough-camping solidly for the previous two weeks, through snow storms, sub-zero temperatures and icy wind and rain. At no time did I come even remotely close to being as cold as I was while riding the bike.

Perhaps a secondary cautionary note should be that while the weather in Britain doesn't usually reach the extremes experienced in some other countries, it can still throw up conditions punishing to the human body. I was probably borderline hypothermic some of the time - a condition which not only saps the strength, but enfeebles the mind.

However, when I ask myself whether I would do it again, the answer is: 'of course I would'. Perhaps even: 'of course I will', only this time with slightly better gear.


If you'd like to read more about Nick's motorcycle adventures - including a longer version of this article - then you'll find his traveller's tales at:-

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