That freshly minted learner’s licence was burning a hole in my pocket. The two weeks with the Vespa Primavera had been nice but now I yearned for a proper motorbike. So I used my contacts and rustled up a two-wheeled machine that I have long been sweet on — the Royal Enfield Classic 500.
Basically a modern reproduction of a British motorcycle first built after World War 2, the made-in-India Classic 500 is the epitome of retro cool. Its antiquated metal mudguards and analogue speedometer are a refreshing antidote to an era defined by computer-designed carbon-fibre fairings and digital multi-function displays. Heck, it even has a kick-starter. Similar to stepping inside an antique store, the Classic 500 transports you back to a simpler time. And as somebody who was born 50 years too late, I quite like the idea of this nostalgic journey.
So I signed some papers, donned my leather biking jacket and merged with the traffic. Roaring down Rivonia Road two things immediately struck me. The first being just how comfortable the Classic 500 is to ride. The old-fashioned, sit-up-and-beg ergonomics mean that you have a good view of what’s happening ahead. Which is what you want in a city overrun by 4.5 million people. The second is that the Classic 500 attracts some serious attention. Uber drivers. Families in Porsche Cayennes. Pedestrians. Everybody wanted to grab a generous eyeful. Which was fantastic until the road started to elevate upwards and I ran out of riding talent.
Pulling away on the flat had presented no problem. On a hill it was a totally different story. So, overcome by 190kg of motorcycle and the foreign levels of hand/foot coordination required to keep it from rolling away, I treated the greater Sandton motoring populous to a YouTube worthy spectacle of novice misadventure. I was either whisky throttling away from the lights, my feet dragging on the tarmac as I frantically tried to regain control, or stalling. Stalling was the worst because it sparked a hooting frenzy rivaled only by the Soweto Derby.
And so went my long and frustrating ride back to the Rosebank office: a jerky, praying mantis staccato that made me long for the easy CVT transmission fitted to the Vespa. I felt like an accident waiting to happen. Well, except for one clean run down the Nicol Highway. For about 3km I was alone to exploit that 500cc single-cylinder, twin-spark motor. There’s not a lot of power on tap so you short-shift and gallop along on a steady wave of easy torque. Going up the hill past Hyde Park centre in fifth gear? No problem. This is what the Classic 500 is all about. Sedate chugging at 100km/h. You can go a bit faster, sure, but then the mechanical vibration starts blurring your vision and liquefying your hands. So there really is not much point.
Also, being at the mercy of a fairly rudimentary braking system (a single disc up front and a drum at the rear), the thought of actually coming to a stop from speeds greater than 100km/h didn’t inject my beginner mind with much confidence. Still, for a few fleeting moments I found myself thoroughly enjoying the Classic 500. The muffled pops shooting through the exhaust when coming off the throttle, the sun glinting off the chrome gas tank — when not dicing with death and/or making a complete fool of myself in front of boets pumping tunes in their Audi S3s, all was well with the world.
But, as we all know, the world is usually not well for very long. Especially not for the motorcycle novice. Learning to command a scooter had been simple. There’s less to think about on a scooter. There are no gears and it’s light enough to push onto its centre stand — a feat I couldn’t manage with the hefty Royal Enfield. In fact this was the proverbial final straw. After making it back to my office I stressed and strained only to wimp out and leave it parked it on its kickstand. Which is where I left it for the remainder of the week.
I felt emasculated and out of my depth. Usually I’m the one who dominates the machine but in this instance the machine had dominated me. Maybe I didn’t want to admit it at the time but this was my first and last foray into the world of motorcycles. Sad, perhaps, but also joyful in retrospect because it happened on a bike that I admire: one that combines the cool-factor of a Triumph with the price tag of an entry-level Honda dual purpose. So for aspirant bikers who share my tastes and sentiment yet actually have the aptitude to pull one off, I hope the Classic 500 rumbles on for many years to come. – Thomas Falkiner (Pics: Kevin Sutherland)
Fast Facts: Royal Enfield 500
Engine: 499cc single
Power: 20kW at 5250rpm
Torque: 41Nm at 4000rpm
Transmission: five-speed manual
Tank Capacity: 13.5-litres
Price: From R64 990