Looking for the Right Bike
Backus on his K75 leading riders during the 2019 Tour of Lawrence (Kansas).
My modest stable of motorcycles is occupied by less than a half dozen machines, each one bought not so much on a predicated search for that specific bike but the simple expedience of opportunity. The 1983 Laverda RGS is the dream machine, a bike I never thought I’d own until one miraculously made itself available (thanks Scott Potter). I was riding a black 1972 short wheelbase BMW R75/5 when we started Motorcycle Classics back in 2005, but sold it when the Laverda came along the same year, so when a green 1973 long wheelbase R75/5 was offered to me a few years back I just had to get it. The 1976 Suzuki GT185 on the other hand was nowhere on my radar when a friend said he was selling his, but one ride around the block and I knew I had to have it. It’s a brilliant little machine, stone cold reliable and the perfect learner bike for new riders, young and old. The 1974 Laverda SF2 doesn’t really count as mine, a build I did for buddy Matt, who seems to like the fact that it’s sharing space with two other Laverdas: my RGS and yet another RGS the two of us bought as a future project.
That brings me to the latest addition to the garage, my 1995 BMW K75, which, like the others, just sort of presented itself. I’d been thinking about getting something in the way of an “appliance,” a reliable non-collectible I could ride daily without worrying about scratching its paint or dulling its brightwork from days spent under the hot sun, a bike that wouldn’t bum me out if I dropped it for whatever stupid reason. Laverda plastic is close to unobtainium and classic BMW bodywork keeps getting harder to find.
So that made the idea of finding something not so dear attractive. But what to get? The answer came when I spied the K75 for sale on the local Craigslist. I’d just sold my 1972 Datsun pickup, so with a bit of cash in hand the timing was perfect, and the K75 seemed the ideal appliance if ever there was one. Renowned for its reliability and boasting an impressive list of standard features including triple disc brakes with ABS, fuel injection, liquid cooling and a smooth, counter-balanced inline triple, the K75 seemed perfect. And yet, nine months into ownership, I’m still not sure how much I like it, because it doesn’t seem to move me emotionally.
After years of riding old and oftentimes decrepit machinery, I’ve gotten used to making adjustments in riding style and expectations with the bikes I ride. My old Norton required a certain attitude every time I swung a leg over it, and I sure didn’t ride it for the maintenance-free experience. My R75/5 on the other hand is hugely reliable, but it requires concessions to less-than-ideal brakes and suspension, the drums a little on the feeble side compared to modern machinery and the suspension regularly overwhelmed by its limited travel.
The Laverda is an absolutely awesome road bike, happy to run autobahn speeds all day, but it’s ponderous in town and simply ill-suited to urban riding. Contrast that with the GT185, a fab little in-town bike that’s completely out of its element on the road. It’ll get up to 65mph no problem, but it’s simply not happy running fast.
So that made the K75 seem perfect. Unfaired it might not be the best road bike, but it’ll sing along at 85mph without effort, and its excellent balance makes it easy to ride in town. The stock saddlebags are great for quick trips to the grocery story or stowing rain gear and tools on a day trip. It gets great mileage — so far averaging around 47mpg — doesn’t burn any oil, stops on a dime, has a huge headlamp, big blinkers and excellent rearview mirrors that never vibrate, giving a clear, crisp view of the road behind.
So what’s the problem? It’s boring. While the inline three is an excellent mill (albeit a bit slow to respond to revs), it has all the personality of an air compressor. There’s no soul to the muted exhaust and the whirring of the engine is simply white noise; there’s no hint of anything interesting going on inside. I suppose that’s the point of bikes like the K75, machines that insulate the rider from the mechanical goings-on to, theoretically, augment the riding experience. For me, that insulation just blunts the joy of the riding experience.
And yet, a recent gig motorcycle marshaling the local bicycle races showed the K to be the perfect mount for the job, its appliance-like qualities complementing the task at hand. Quiet, predictable and smooth, its big turn signals flashing brightly courtesy of the built-in hazard switch, I couldn’t think of a better bike to be on during the two days I spent leading racers around the course. I’d been seriously considering selling the K, but now I’m thinking I need to ride it a little more to uncover its character. Maybe it is the right bike and a keeper after all.
Richard Backus/Founding Editor
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