I’m cold. No, I’m bloody freezing. It’s a brutal, almost base feeling, and it’s relentless. The wind, and the damp of the fog I’m enveloped in, is slicing its way right down to the core of my being; my motorcycle riding gear may as well not be on my body. I can feel the wind wrap itself, tendril-like, around my torso, enveloping me in a macabre embrace. My hands, despite my leather gloves, have become so numb that I can barely feel the handlebars that are supposed to be in them. My head feels like a block of ice, my eyes are welling up, my teeth are chattering and my ears hurt; my helmet appears to have thrown in the towel as far as wind protection is concerned. I lean as far over the fuel tank as I can, in a feeble attempt to reduce surface area, but I can only hold this position for so long before I have to straighten up again. My legs are a little better off, but only just – at least I can feel my toes working the gear shifter and brake levers on the Royal Enfield Interceptor 650 I’m riding.
The Pacific Coast Highway, probably California’s most storied road and a great place to test a motorcycle’s straight-line ability, stretches out endlessly in front of me, almost mockingly, like it’s telling me that there’s a lot more of this I’ll have to endure. It’s shockingly beautiful – the Pacific Ocean washes ashore to my left, bringing with it the lascivious smell of salt and seaweed, and the fog and wind. To my right, I see flashes of hills, quaint towns and fields, melding into a blur as I roar past at over 90 mph, the Interceptor feeling right at home, unstressed. I’m going well over the speed limit, and it’s almost certain that I’ll be in serious trouble if I’m spotted by the police, but that thought is blown away by the icy hold the wind has on my neck. Besides, motorcyclists riding in the opposite direction seem to be going almost as fast, so I figure I’m in good company; almost all of them give the Interceptor the thumbs up as they blow past. It’s a hitherto unseen sight on American soil, so there’s the novelty of it, but it’s also a very good looking motorcycle, the sort that I’m partial to – which is to say, it’s a retro design done right. It looks straight out of the 1960s, and yet it isn’t out of place in 2018 – the same can be said of its twin, the Continental GT 650, which I’ve ridden the previous day, and which is possibly even better looking.
To distract myself from the cold, I run through the things I like about these bikes – which are many. The tanks on either are great, for one – the Interceptor has a lovely teardrop-shaped one, and the GT a proper cafe-racer version that lets you tuck your knees into its recesses. The instrument pods are clean and classic, giving you just the bare minimum information about speed, revs, distance covered and remaining fuel – while some would call this too little, I’m happy not being distracted by a barrage of information, as is the case with a lot of modern motorcycle displays. The seats are in perfect proportion with the rest of the machine, with the Interceptor having a longer one and the GT an optional cowl, converting it into a sporty single-seater. The upswept exhaust pipes are a sexy touch, and the brand new, 648cc twin-cylinder engine is nice and chunky, filling up the chassis in a satisfying manner. These are machines that grab my attention, keep it and make me think about them after the ride is done, which is half the battle won.
It’s also an absolute revelation, for a Royal Enfield engine. Through all the biting cold, I’m well aware of the fact that this is a smooth, refined powerplant, with none of the sometimes overpowering noise, vibrations and low-fi nature that are almost a given with RE’s single-cylinder units (of which I’m quite fond, nonetheless). This thing is from another planet – it sounds and feels modern. 47 bhp and 52 Nm of torque aren’t earth shattering by today’s standards, but even though I’d have liked a power figure closer to 55 bhp, I’d much rather have a friendly, usable engine than an insanely powerful one with which to shatter the earth (and probably my bike around a lamp post, at some point).
In any case, RE’s aim was to get the bikes to top the 100 mph figure (‘the ton’, in biker parlance), and this they have comfortably achieved – I see an indicated 120 mph on both bikes on several occasions, jail time or no jail time. The torque curve is brilliantly flat, too, letting me roll on the throttle at low speeds and higher gears and work up a good head of steam all the way up to 7500 rpm, and the burble from the twin exhausts is a treat for the ears, on either bike (they share the same engine). I’m also surprised that the slick, light, 6-speed gearbox with a slipper clutch hasn’t missed a single shift over two days of hard riding, and that neutral is a cinch to find – I can’t say that about any other Enfield, as much as I may like them.
I’m stuck behind a slow-moving pickup truck, one of those fuck-off American things that are as large as a shipping container. Given the choice between freezing and going slow and hypothermia and going fast, I pick the latter. Dropping two gears in rapid succession, I use the available overtaking opportunity and take off past it, the bike’s exhaust note bouncing off the mini canyon we’re in. Somewhere ahead of me is a turnoff that leads up to the hills and, perplexingly, sunshine and warmth – I really can’t figure California out, sometimes – and I intend to get there as quickly as goddamn possible. I wring the throttle way open, managing a glacial grin as the Interceptor reassuringly picks up speed, feeling completely planted on the road even though the wind is doing its best to sideswipe me clean off the tarmac. I’d felt the same stability on the GT the previous day, so clearly the chassis (shared by both bikes and developed by Harris Performance, a UK chassis specialist now owned by RE) has been done just right.
The turnoff, at last. Redwood forests, twisty roads, Alice’s famous restaurant (hint: Arlo Guthrie) and the chance to thaw out beckon, and I’m not hanging about. Not two minutes after I take the turn, the road narrows and begins to climb, inviting me to start throwing the Interceptor around. On the GT, previously, these roads have been flat out amazing, with that bike’s more forward-leaning, committed riding position and sportier stance resulting in a flickable nature which, while not racebike sharp, had been reassuringly agile – the best-handling Royal Enfield I’ve ever ridden, as a matter of fact. What will its sibling be like to ride here, I wonder, and the answer is soon clear – just as much fun, but in a different way. Where the GT is more playful, straining at the leash, diving into corners and wanting nothing more than to get into some mischief, the Interceptor is the wiser, older machine, wanting to approach things in a more relaxed (but just as capable) manner. I lean in and out of seemingly endless corners on the breathtaking road, the ABS equipped brakes solidly keeping things in check, the specially developed Pirelli tyres offering great adhesion, the chassis and suspension entirely at ease (save for a slightly stiff ride quality), the engine singing full-throatedly and a proper, unfrozen smile on my face – this is sheer motorcycling heaven, and I miss it more than I realise.
By now, the sun is shining gloriously, and I can feel my body come back to life. On what is one of the greatest biking routes I have ever encountered, I let it rip on the Interceptor, determined to savour every last second of the ride. I’m no GP racer, and I haven’t been out on a long ride in a while, so sometimes I feel a little rusty – a corner is leaned into too late, the brakes are applied too early, the front end wiggles as I grab the brakes too hard – but the bike never allows any of this to put it off its stride; it carries me upwards and onwards, unstressed, happy to let me make mistakes, letting me know it’s got my back. When I arrive at Alice’s, all set for a cheeseburger lunch, I almost decide to disregard my hunger and ask if I can just keep riding – the Interceptor (and GT) is that kind of motorcycle. As I park the bike and walk toward the restaurant, taking off my riding gear, I realise that the return leg involves riding back down to the Pacific Coast Highway, which will eventually lead me to the RE base in Santa Cruz. That damn road has only just attempted to put me in a cryogenic coma, but now, I don’t really care. These new Royal Enfields are such a pleasure to ride that I’ll brave the insane cold, open up the throttle, hear the bike roar and be reminded once again that in the end, simple, honest-to-goodness motorcycles are where it’s at, and never mind the weather.
A MATTER OF HISTORY
The Interceptor 650 and Continental GT 650 are modern (yet very classic) interpretations of two iconic Royal Enfields of yesteryear, the similarly named Interceptor and Continental GT. RE most recently introduced the Continental GT 535 in 2013, a single-cylinder cafe racer which was popular abroad, but not in India; it has now been discontinued. The new 650 Twins, as they’re known, share a chassis, suspension and engine, developed and fine tuned by RE’s technical centres in the UK and India. They’re probably the most important motorcycles the firm has ever launched, since it is looking to carve out a slice of the global lifestyle biking market. We expect the bikes to go on sale in November in India, at very competitive prices, and with a 3-year warranty.
Engine 648cc parallel twin
Power 47 bhp@7250 rpm
Torque 52 Nm@5250 rpm
Price Rs 3 lakh to 4 lakh for the range (expected, ex-showroom)
Alongside the bikes, RE has a range of 40 accessories that can be ordered for them. These include fairings, handlebars and handlebar ends, louder exhaust pipes, touring luggage, different mirrors, seat cowls and the like.
Also available is a range of well crafted apparel and protective motorcycle gear, ranging from T-shirts to gloves, riding pants and jackets in different materials and styles, helmets and riding boots.