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The Problem with the Café Racer Craze

I have a problem with café racers.

I don’t mind that they’re ridden by Gen-Y hipsters trying to “relive” the golden age of 1960s British motorsport. These are the same people who grow Old Testament beards and take photos with Polaroid cameras, so I’m used to the cultural confusion.

I don’t mind that café racers are rubbish to ride, either. Of course a paper-thin seat and clip-on handlebars don't make sense on a standard motorcycle. But neither does drinking scalding hot tea from a mason jar. Again – I’m used to it.

I don’t even mind that café racers are erasing all memory of what a UJM actually looked like. Just type CB550 or XS650 into google images and you’ll see what I mean.

No – none of that stuff bothers me. Partially because I’m a closet hipster and partially because I believe people should ride whatever they damn well want to. You should rev the engine on whatever revs your engine. Simple as that.

My problem with the café racer craze is that it prevents people from riding what they want to. In fact, it prevents people from riding anything. That’s because café racers are enormously popular with brand-new riders. And if you want to succeed at being a motorcyclist, a café racer is the shittiest place to start.

Café Racers are Hard to Ride

Your first motorcycle shouldn’t be something that costs $400 to buy and $4000 to put together. You shouldn’t have to kick it a thousand times on a chilly morning. You shouldn’t have to fiddle with crappy carburetors that gulp air from cone filters and sip fuel from clogged jets.

Your first saddle sores shouldn’t arrive on the second kilometre. You shouldn’t lean into your first curve on suspension that has been crushed by the heavy hands of a home mechanic. You shouldn’t hit your first patch of wet pavement on oversized tires. You shouldn’t experience your first panic stop on drum brakes.

Most of all, you shouldn’t start your motorcycle career in vintage sneakers, blue jeans, a flannel shirt and an open face helmet.

The café racer craze is setting up new motorcyclists for failure. It’s creating half-finished project bikes that never get ridden. It’s creating a generation of would-be riders who never experience how comfortable, powerful and reliable a bike can be. It’s creating a wave of young motorcyclists that get broke, get bored, get hurt, and get out.

I want new riders to succeed at motorcycling! I want them to ride for the rest of their lives and love every minute of it. So if you absolutely must start on a café racer, do it one of these ways:

Buying a Café Racer: Choose Smart and Modify Slow

First, buy something that runs well. It’s extremely easy to get bored with a motorcycle when you can't actually use it.

Once you have the bike, ride. And ride. And ride. I would put 5000 kilometers between my wheels before I even thought about modifications. This way, you’ll hone your skills on a bike with proper dynamics.  Plus, you’ll discover how reliable the motorcycle is before throwing cash at it. And finally, you might look at those fenders, raised handlebars and cushy seats differently once you’ve experienced the benefit.

Buy a Modern Classic Motorcycle

Suzuki's TU250X retails at just over $4000 BRAND-NEW. | credit attribution r reeve (unchanged, CC BY-ND 2.0), via flickr commons. Suzuki's TU250X retails at just over $4000 brand-spanking new. | credit attribution r reeve (unchanged, CC BY-ND 2.0), via flickr commons.

New vintage is bullshit – the name itself is an oxymoron. But much like jumbo shrimp, modern classics are a lovely kind of bullshit. You can have your deliciously-styled motorcycle and still feel full afterwards.

The Triumph BonnevilleRoyal Enfield Continental GTYamaha Bolt C-Spec, and Ducati Scrambler – these are great ways to get a fulfilling riding experience from a vintage-y motorcycle. And yes, you could still make some café-ish modifications to escape the dreaded mainstream.

Modern classics are more user-friendly than the real thing. Some of them have traction control and ABS, and all of them have lights that illuminate and brakes that stop. They’re reliable and – in the long run – probably cheaper.

If you gather $5000 up front, you can pick up a modern classic with low kilometres and a good resale value. To me, that beats paying $3000 over 3 years for a motorcycle that barely works in the meantime. Besides, the café racer craze has already begun its final descent. In a few years, I’m betting that Kijiji will be saturated with badly-modified UJMs at extremely low prices. Unsold.

Buy a Motorcycle that You Will Ride

I want to see more people riding motorcycles. So if you are truly prepared to do the seat time on a hacked-up 1970s UJM, power to you! I'm thrilled to see any type of person on any type of bike - as long as they're riding it.

I just don’t want people to buy into the café racer craze, only to give up on motorcycling after a bad experience. I’d hate for my generation of motorcyclists to fall off the edge of a very sharp trend.

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