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Best Tourer Shootout - Tour de force

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Hot, scalding showers are best saved for exceptional circumstances. Though always available if you have a decent geyser, they work best when you have fourteen hours of saddle time under your belt, fresh memories of a superb ride and lots of little aches and pains that seem to be celebrating your latest adventure. Like the one Bijoy, Joshua, Gerard (Josh’s friend and F650 man in the pics) and I have just completed. A perfect day at the office, even.

It started out as an exploration of what the top three motorcycles in India are capable of on the
open road. The bikes, obviously, were the top three displacement-wise (excluding the 350cc Bullets). So, we got a mint P220, a paint-still-wet Karizma and a Royal Enfield Bullet Machismo 500 (to be called 500 from here on in) for the test. Gerard – Joshua’s friend – took an optional off from his office on his obsessively pristine BMW F650 and joined in the fun. The plan? A good, hard, road ride, with achingly beautiful tarmac, lots of corners and elevated speed. As you can see, that’s not quite how it turned out.Joshua charted out a good route (see Route Check on page 00), except that on Google Earth all tarmac looks great. There are no potholes on Google’s Earth (no, Lonar and Arizona don’t count). The ride was split into two days, with a loopy 250 km on the first day to be followed by a straighter, smoother 150-odd km on the second day. Sounds paltry in distance terms, right? But when you have to stop for pics, kilometres have a way of lasting a long, long time. And that’s despite the fact that Josh’s camera work is almost all extempore and unplanned.

We departed Mumbai with one eye on the gathering gloom ahead. Stopping just outside to put on the waterproofs, we thrummed into the increasingly insistent rain, enjoying the lovely tarmac and the deserted rhythm of the old Mumbai-Pune road. Joshua was on the Bullet, which he describes as ‘the pack mule of all Indian motorcycle tourers. It can lug anything, anywhere without buckling.’ I was on the P220, a few bike lengths behind, cutting through the spray at well over a hundred. The mirrors on the 220 are useless except in a crouch – a long look showed the 650 loping easily along a few more bike lengths behind. Bijoy, who likes to spool up to speed in a more leisurely fashion, was a bright white spot in the distance. With no dearth of grip from the clean, wet tarmac, we were jogging along at a comfortable speed – somewhere between blinding and faaast. None of the three machines, at these speeds, sound stressed. 80-110 kph cruising is lovely. All three get loud, but the wind drowns them out with contemptuous ease.   Even as we completed our high-speed warm up, we hit the first stage – perfect tarmac looped up like spicy spaghetti. As we hit it, the temperature dropped from warm to nippy-comfortable, the clouds rolled in and dropped our sensory world to a few feet and coated the road wet. We wore this diaphanous blanket and rode on in a still-not-slow convoy. The world shrank until the background faded and life was black-and-white, literally. Eyes hunting for the next strip of white painted with ruthless efficiency on the twisting blacktop. Life at the leading edge of concentration is pure joy.

Leading the group on a 220 in these conditions is the right thing to do. It has the best headlamps of the lot by a country mile, really bright, penetrating tail lamps and confident, forgiving handling. And since I had taken to doing periodic lifesaver checks for the trio in tow, it all went swimmingly. We blasted out of the clouds in the middle of a corner and suddenly hit a strip of dry tarmac. Speeds rose once more and I was reminded of just how impressive the 220 is on roads like these. Joshua kept up easily, though, the 500’s sheer weight helping the relatively poor tyres stick and the newly chamfered pegs allowing more lean angle. The F650 was a non-issue, engine probably not even in cruising range yet, while the Karizma lost out only the slightest bit. Then, we took a right turn off the brilliant road and headed into the Maharashtrian wilds. The surface deteriorated rapidly. Tarmac gave way to potholes, potholes to hasty rock-laid roads. This is how it would remain for the next 100 km, but we found that out later. 

Passing through a dreamlike grove of trees, we emerged into a valley that sucked the breath out of our lungs. Towering mountains stood around the valley, wrapped in a uniform, violent green that is almost a signature colour of the state in the rains. With gravel scrunching under our wheels, we came to a stop and gawked.As we grew used to the road’s surface and temperament, the ride’s rhythm changed. Not one of the bikes protested at any time. For the F650, this wasn’t too hard, since it does have a Dakar variant out there. The ride quality on the Karizma and the Pulsar 220 really impressed here. There was nothing on the road that the two could not absorb. Where the Karizma would just quietly absorb and get on with it, the P220 would also return enough feedback to tell what you just went through. Invaluable feedback like this inspires trust and it was no surprise that whoever rode the 220 was always the fastest. 

Just as I was gloating about this, Josh snatched the keys and gave me the 500 instead. Drat. Well, not really. I’d been enjoying the athletic feel of the 220. So the 500’s approach to a good ride came as a surprise. Where the 220 relies on sorted suspension and superb wheel control, the 500 uses a more blunt instrument – its weight. What it cannot absorb, it pulverises. However, when Joshua and I decided to elevate the pace a little, gapping Bijoy and Gerard with ease, I was soon struggling to match Joshua. Where the 220 would move Joshua around a bit, the 500 had me nearly ragdolling and/or out of my seat. Er... better slow down and take in the background then. 

Like our moods, the day and the ride, the weather was getting better too. Rain abated, the sun came out for a bit and from then on, it would remain cool and overcast. We were deeply happy to note that weather aside, the terrain wasn’t that different from the stuff Bijoy, Joshua and I so cherish about Ladakh. Sport touring? Welcome to India. We should start an adventure touring firm, methinks.The road really was wild. It twisted and turned. It threw up unexpected crests that we wheelied happily over. It lay under water in stretches, challenging us with an obscured surface coated thickly in algae.We slid about, spat gravel at each other off our rear wheels and spun up endlessly in the muck. We weren’t making time, but we were having a great time.Then we hit a roadblock. An overloaded truck had smashed a drainage pipe, sunk in axle-deep and blocked the road. As we pulled up, Gerard looked worried and Bijoy looked ecstatic. Pulling our lids off, Joshua and I promptly walked into the mud below and figured out a route around the truck. Slush Fest redux! Before Gerard could react, Bijoy was wildly fishtailing through the scenery and onto the other side.The road was now bucking up and down like a champion rodeo bull and within minutes, it caught Joshua out. I’ll let him describe it. ‘I was overtaking everyone for the pics and on this stretch I saw Shumi disappear into a trough and come out the other side and immediately turn right. I accelerated into the dip, and the splash was so huge that the water came right into my helmet – I’d left my visor up. Totally blinded and unsure where the turn went, I got hard on the brakes, came to a stop, and like a total idiot, I flopped over. Er... sorry Bajaj.’ One indicator snapped off and the right side fairing of the 220 cracked a bit (Rs 1500 for the replacement, we checked). But that, literally and figuratively, was the lowest point of a euphoric ride. 

The high point was a deserted, scenic spot, recognisable by the only man-made structure there – a concrete railing to stop the suicidal from plunging into a deep gorge. A racy whitewater soundtrack played on, though the gorge was too deep to see the bottom. There was no one there, just the clouds floating in and four awed riders.Within minutes of reluctantly leaving that place, we came around a turn to see a gorgeous looking strip of picture perfect tarmac. Speeds went up instantly. It didn’t last – the monsoon had ravaged surfaces, stuffing apexes with loose dust, potholes and wet leaves. But the apex hunt began nonetheless. All four bikes are forgiving creatures, willing to take the line you want and then change it at will. I think we carried some insane speeds into wet corners, and not one bike ever twitched. The 500’s tyres were clearly at a disadvantage, but with smooth inputs (me), it wasn’t as hard as it appeared at first to keep up with youthful throttle wringing on the newer machine (Joshua). No question of out-braking and stuffing the 500 inside the 220 into a corner though. That’d be Pedrosa doing Hayden, only sillier.As the clock ticked away, the road got better and better, until we finally turned on to the highway that would speed us home on the morrow. But first, lunch. We inhaled a plateful of chicken and a skyscraper of fresh tandoori rotis, and the discussion turned to heading back to Mumbai post lunch. At this point, we’d been riding for ten hours already – clearly all four bikes were comfortable over long distances.   We were back on the road so quickly, I almost forgot we even stopped. We did a quick swap once more, I returned to the 220, Joshua took the Karizma and Bijoy (finally) got to ride the 500 he’s been lusting after since Josh’s first ride.Returning to the 220 was a revelation. It was like a fog cleared and once more, I was enveloped in a world of feedback, able to clearly ‘see’ the road underneath the contact patch. The almost sportbike ergos work for me – I like the crouched position. Joshua was home too, on the Kari’s upright riding stance. Bijoy also was at ease, enjoying, as he put it, ‘the nearly perfect ergonomics of the 500.’
With light traffic and a brilliant sunset in the making off to my right, I chose to ride the 220 hard. It was on the boil, staying well north of 105 kph for long periods. The engine feels powerful and effortless. Joshua says, ‘The engine’s not lazy by any means but neither is it hyper-active. It’s found its sweet spot.’ Passing vehicles is a breeze and the 220’s ability to hold an unwavering line over sudden potholes and midcorner bumps was gratefully put to great use. At these speeds, the Karizma loses ground to the 220’s punchy top-end and overtaking needs a bit more care. The 500 is another kettle of fish. The grunt is never lacking, but as Bijoy said, ‘You’d rather not be changing gears in the middle of an overtake.’

Much later, I got stuck in the first traffic snarl of the day, minutes away from home. Stuck firmly, engines all around me either idling or off, I had a moment to consider the day. We’d taken three of India’s best road-biased bikes out for a day. And instead of high-speed buzzing on all-day twisties, we’d thrown them something completely different – a gruelling mix of good and bad terrain, a very impressive variety of surfaces, corners and situations. We’d bashed them through non-roads, monsoon craters, gravel, rocks and slush. We tested their ability to find traction in the wet. And the bikes did it all without complaint. Gerard said his 650’s seat was perhaps a bit hard for a long ride. But look, no numb bums, no iron butt syndrome, no hobbled walking about. Very impressive, I must say.    How do they compare directly?

The Enfield 500 is the ultimate bike for the Bullet enthusiast. Bijoy said, ‘It instantly makes me want to buy it. There are some minor improvements in the ergos I can think of, but the rest is just right.’ When I objected saying that the price was a bit much, Bijoy had the right answer, ‘Shumi, you can’t rationalise everything.’

The Karizma is the old hand at this job. Its lazy-feel engine packs a fair wallop and the all-absorbing ride quality is a blessing. Add sorted handling and a comfortable saddle and you have a great touring bike. The only problem, probably, is that the Karizma is a bit thirsty at speed, so tank range, especially when you’re comparing, can be a wee bit less than the competition.

The F650 came with us on a lark. It’s a serious machine and a more carefree rider on it would leave us in the dust even if we were restricted to only two gears. But it is heavy, and slow going over slippery patches needs  care, especially because replacement parts need to be ordered from abroad.

The P220 is the new kid on the block, and it’s a bit of a prodigy. The superlative ride quality and rich feedback allow you to come out and play on any surface. The handling’s great, the tubeless MRF rubber works in the dry and in the wet and the engine’s a humdinger. It doesn’t feel fast initially, but once you get used to it, there’s plenty of performance in this baby. It’s frugal too, allowing you to extend the tank range by significant amounts simply by slowing from 110 kph to 70 kph. It does have a few issues, though. We miss a dash clock and better mirrors would be nice. 

Four superb touring mounts. Each with a distinct flavour. Each devours miles at speed without stress. Each burns up tarmac if called upon, just by different degrees. Mounting luggage on the Kari and P220 can be troublesome. Prices range from Rs 80,000 to Rs 1,01,000. The P220’s sporty riding position may not suit all though – it puts a fair amount of weight on the wrists, but if you’re naturally crouchy, this is the bike. And what a smashing ride! Joshua, for instance, wanted to go back and do it again the very next day. And with that lovely scalding shower as the end result, I almost said yes too.