After the Ride

 

Summary

Buell designed the Blast to give people the best possible introduction to motorcycling, and in doing that they created a classy, capable, versatile roadster. During the road test it did well at everything within reason and then some, and it has some outstanding qualities that will delight any rider. Calling it a "beginner bike" overlooks too much.

The Blast's handling and brakes are superb. The rider has total control without having to dominate any "quirks" of a compromised design. Engine power is adequate for solo road riding, and the Single looks to be nearly bombproof, with maintenance and other motoring hassles reduced to a minimum.

For many new riders it will be the best bike to start out with. But I think it will also make experienced riders happy: as a second bike, for light duty and pleasure riding; as an economical commuter, and traffic-beating urban transportation; and as a weekend backroad touring bike. A lot of motorcycling went into the Blast, and it's there to be had.

I found some of the bike's limits by riding much harder than is wise on a public road. The engine loves to howl, but the massive transmission didn't take well to fast shifts at screaming high revs. The suspension is set up for good response in normal riding, and since it's non-adjustable, that's it. The feet-forward riding position makes it difficult to stand on the pegs or lay down on the tank.

The Blast was designed for the pleasure and exhilaration of riding, not for racing. Hard-chargers may find it either fun and relaxing, or frustrating. I'm sure some will work to push the limits and hot-rod it into a roaring roadburner.

When (or if) riders begin to regularly exceed the bike's limitations, they'll be well prepared to choose their next motorcycle with knowledge and experience; and in some ways, their next bikes will have a lot to live up to.

The Details

Engine

The single-cylinder engine has a lot going for it - it is simple, rugged, efficient and economical, has a relatively low center of gravity, and minimum frontal area. Plus it sounds great. Its 30 hp was adequate in normal riding and high-speed traffic, and torque is available from idle to redline, though the engine shakes mightily below 2000 rpm. Power comes on steadily, and the bike becomes lively at around 4000 revs.(Rev counts are estimates due to lack of a tach). I never noticed a dip in the power curve when I was riding. It's deliberately over-built and under-stressed; for instance the skip-spark rev limiter kicks in around 6500 rpm, but the short-stroked engine could run to 7500 without overloading its bearings. It looks like there's plenty of hop-up potential here.

Performance - Above 4000 rpm the Blast had enough snap to be a sure-enough motorcycle, accelerating ahead of traffic and able to blast through the gaps with power to spare. Below that pick-up was slow, or shall we say "unintimidating", and new riders can feel sure the bike will not get out of hand. It was able to idle along in slow traffic at 6 to 8 mph without using the clutch. The bike had no problem cruising steadily at 75, and began to feel comfortable at 80 as it broke in. It's geared high, and passing at highway speed in 5th is a fool's errand, but the power is there in 4th. At speeds over 75, wind resistance of the upright riding position eats up a lot of the engine's power; when I ducked down on the tank, doing 90 on the level, the bike picked up speed fast.

Top Speed - If my math is correct the Blast is geared for a top of about 103 mph at 6500 rpm. Cycle World reports an actual top speed of 95. I got it up to 96 on a gentle downgrade before I had to slow down for traffic. The Blast's ever-present stability kept it and the rider calm at speed. I steered it over some filled-in potholes and the tires stayed connected to the road. At that speed, though, the wind battering my arms caused spurious steering inputs and I had to concentrate on holding steady. No one's reported a speed over 96 so far, but with slick leathers and a good racing tuck behind the instrument screen...

Modifications - It's early yet, but I've been hearing about pipes and jetting experiments. Vance & Hines already have a Blast exhaust on their website. I heard Borla was working on one also, but got no reply to an e-mail query. Some considerations in an aftermarket exhaust are ground clearance, the stock muff's skid plate role, and mounting to an engine which is free to move relative to the frame. There's also the question of affecting the bike's handling balance. I'll have more on mods as solid information becomes available. Accessories and performance parts should be available from Harley in the future, but for now it's up to a well-established after-market. Be advised adding "high performance accessories...which alter the manufacturer's original equipment specifications..." appears to void the warranty as I read it on page 112 of the owner's manual.

Fuel Cost - After the 500-mile point, mileage ranged from 44 to 71, average 56. The low average is due to high speed riding and the wind resistance of the riding position. The lows are due to bucking a fierce headwind in one case, and power-robbing Death Valley detonation in the other. Normal riding should see around 70 mpg.

Carburetion - Buell seems to have the EPA balancing act down to a fine point. I'm told the combustion is so efficient the Blast puts out less than 30% of emissions allowed under the California regs. Both the Blast and the M2 I rode ran surprisingly well, though the M2 needed a proper warm-up to get rid of a lean stumble. The Blast always started easily under any conditions and always ran well, warm or cold, without any symptoms of leanness. The only exceptions were two brief instances of detonation, and one more persistent episode down in Death Valley, where I had to keep speed down to 65 until I gained some elevation. I suspect these were due to a combination of slightly-off factors that by themselves caused no problem, but occasionally "stacked up". For instance, I skipped two scheduled ignition timing checks during the test. There's a fuller description of those events on "The Last Lap". I was unable to stall the engine no matter how sloppy I got with the throttle. The auto-enrichener worked perfectly, but be warned: the warm-up's high idle is at the peak of engine vibration, and the bike may "walk away" if unattended.

Fuel System - The Blast uses a manually-operated fuel valve instead of an automatic valve, a bit out of character for a "turn-key" bike. It was easy to shift from main to reserve while moving, after a little practice. The only flaw in the test bike was a 2.8 gallon tank that wouldn't give up much more than 1.6 gallons. I don't know if the problem was in the petcock intakes or the tank vent; I just went with the same 100-mile range I'm used to on my XT. Even out here in the desert, traveling the wide open spaces, I had no trouble finding fuel when I needed it, and I was too busy riding to fiddle with a non-problem..

Lubrication - The Blast uses a dry-sump system with about two quarts of oil in the main frame and a spin-off car-type filter. If the tank is over-filled, or the grommet under the oil filler cap is mis-assembled, oil may leak out onto the frame. The fix is simple, and thanks to Josh Andrews and the Badweb you can find clear instructions and photos here.

Vibration - When new, the bike felt like a major earthquake up to 2000 rpm, but it smoothed out considerably as it broke in. The period of maximum vibration is passed quickly, and from 2000 to the 6500 rev limit vibration wasn't unpleasant even on a 12-hour ride. I'm not really sensitive to a Big Single's vibration, but objectively I can report that the mirrors stayed clear and usable throughout the rev range.

Engine Mounts - To absorb vibration, the Uniplanar mounts allow some vertical engine movement, and that allows for a lighter frame. With the engine out, the rolling chassis is said to weigh only 200 pounds. The mounts survived some heavy impacts when I bounced the muffler over several boulders and an obnoxious speed bump. The swing-arm is attached directly to the rear of the engine, so any engine movement out of the vertical plane would make for sloppy handling, but even when flying the bike off bumps at speed everything stayed rigidly in line, steady and true.

Maintenance Requirements - First service at 1,000 miles, second at 2,500; then a general look-see every 2500 miles. After break-in, oil and filter changes every 5,000 miles, new spark plug every 10,000. There's not much else to do up to the 20,000 mile service. You'll need a service manual to perform some inspections and adjustments when needed, as the owner's manual only gives instructions for a few of the most basic operations. Changing the oil is neat, simple, and quick. Servicing the bike yourself won't void the warranty as long as you do the work right and keep adequate records and receipts.

Warranty - 12 months, unlimited miles, may be transferable if conditions are met. Dealers should have full details on it.

Transmission

The Sportster trans is massive for a 500 Single. I think its weight is largely responsible for the Blast's constant stability. Buell knows the handling rewards of "mass centralization" and in the Blast it pays off big-time. The mass has a price when it comes to shifting, though: On a fast-idling cold engine, first engages with a grind and loud "BONK" unless you hold the clutch in for a count of five; and fast shifts at screaming high revs were hit or miss for me. In ordinary riding, shifting at 4 to 5,000 rpm, I had no problems. The shift lever was easy, but takes a long throw and a decisive movement. Neutral was always easy to find from first or second. Clutch was easy, smooth, and positive.

Gearing - Some reviewers complained about the low first gear, but I thought the bike was geared tall overall. Riding much over 90 is not likely to be a regular event on a bike like this, and a lower gearing would allow the bike to thump along steadily in dead-slow traffic without using the clutch. Most riders will spend more time in long lines of cars doing the cha-cha up to a stop signal than they will pushing 100 mph. But gearing is a choice depending on riding style and road conditions. The stock gearing was chosen for best mileage, comfortable cruising at highway speed, and to make clutch-and-throttle coordination as easy as possible. The gap between first and second is wide, but I got used to it, and didn't find it a problem.

Final Drive - The belt drive is light weight, clean, quiet, requires no maintenance, and has a 15,000 mile expected service life. No matter what I did with the throttle, power always went smoothly to the rear wheel. After 3,200 miles the belt showed no additional slack, and the only sign of stretch was a few millimeters of "walking" across the rear pulley. That pulley looks a lot wider than it needs to be, but it holds the belt without the friction and heat of side retainer plates, and less heat means longer belt life.

Handling

I don't know if it gets any better than this. The Blast has the grace of a dancer. The combination of fast handling and perfect control is joy in motion. The response to steering input is expertly precise, and the bike is so well balanced it only takes light pressure on the handlebar to roll it from peg to peg. The low center of gravity gives it inherent, constant stability and it never got out of hand. Singles are known for excellent handling, but Buell's dedication to mass centralization and frame rigidity make the Blast outstanding. It's worth going out of your way to try it if you get a chance. It may give you an insight to what other bikes give up in compromises for more power, or ground clearance, or other design demands.

The Blast is also adept at low speed handling. The front wheel turns 90 degrees from lock to lock, and I could turn it around on a narrow two-lane. The bike's light weight and 27-inch maximum width let me walk it through doorways without having to horse it around.

Brakes

Smooth, powerful, easy to operate and modulate. The big front disc will do most of the work, aided by the engine's compression braking on the rear wheel and a touch of the rear brake. One caveat on the rear brake: it's small, it'll heat up if it's abused, and a rider with a "coaster-brake habit" will cook it. I had a brief problem with the rear brake dragging slightly after the trip into the Grand Canyon, probably from fine beach sand getting washed into the works. Pumping the pedal while rocking the bike back and forth freed it up, for a temporary fix. That's as close to a mechanical problem as I got - I carried tools for 3,000 miles and never needed them.

Suspension

I was skeptical about the non-adjustable suspension on this bike, but it covered the range of normal riding conditions well, on pavement fair or better, carrying 180 to 200 pounds.The springs are fairly soft, assisted by somewhat stiff compression damping. In the early miles damping was too stiff, but it broke in quickly - there was a noticeable improvement after each 30 or 40 mile rough-road ride, and it was still getting more supple when I gave the bike back. The suspension is good, but on a bike with excellent handling, brakes, and tires, "good" is the weak link. In vigorous riding the bike felt light, taut, and resilient, with a constant hold on the road. But the combination of the Blast's fast cornering ability and the soft springs means the bike sets down lower when leaning hard in fast curves, and that partly accounts for the pegs scraping before the tires give up. In hard riding, the kind that belongs on a closed course, the suspension was overwhelmed - it's not designed for it. We got airborne off small bumps with the suspension kicking back out to the stops before landing, slowed only slightly if at all by rebound damping. But I was able to mind the suspension's antics without other distractions because the bike was otherwise well-behaved. For riding on bad roads, where you really need an enduro, "the worser it gets, the slower you go". It's a sure thing some Rocketeers will be improving on the stock set-up, but in normal riding it gave me a good live connection to the road. In terms of handling, brakes, and suspension, the Blast was far superior to an '84 BMW R80 I owned.

Tires

The Dunlop K330 tires had a faultless grip on pavement. I rode them hard braking and cornering, but I never got them to skip, slip, or slide. Even when I had the suspension on the ropes, riding too fast around bumpy curves, the tires touched down with a sure grip. The flip side of traction is durability. The front tire looked good as new at 3200 miles, but the rear was finished, center tread gone. I did 90% of my riding on two-lane desert roads with rough pavement, and I was testing the bike's limits. In normal service here 7,000 miles is typical; on modern roads, I'd guess 10,000 miles on the rear would do it. Handling, brakes, suspension, and tires all work together to keep the rider in control of the road. Once I knew their limits, I had total confidence in the Blast's roadholding ability, and went rocketing around the curves at speeds that had the neighbors discussing my imminent demise. But this is a well designed, high quality motorcycle, so I was able to ride fast, safely. Beginner bike? The neighbors were sure it would finish me.

The Human Side

Fit - The Blast looks smaller than it is; its apparent size is a bit of an illusion that takes some getting used to, thanks to the 16-inch wheels and scant 4.3-inch ground clearance. It's actually a full-size motorcycle. But perceptions can be hard to shake, so here's a different perspective:

Blastzilla sneaking up on a hapless Honda

I'm 5'9", and being perfectly average, fit perfectly. I invited a lanky local Sportster rider to try the Blast on for size. "Oh no, man, I'm 6-foot 3". But he tried it and was amazed he fit. A lady with a 34-inch inseam tried it and said it was perfect for her, and she looked good on it, too. I guess if the circus had been in town I could have found the limits, but it seems anyone in the wide range considered normal will be able to ride the Blast in comfort. With the average Joe in the saddle, there was ample room left for a passenger or a touring duffle. I found the saddle well-shaped and the padding comfortable, a little on the cushy side. The handlebar switches are well-designed and easy to operate by feel without fumbling. Both mirrors give a good view of the road behind.

Riding Position - I ride an enduro, with my weight over the pegs, and leaning forward to a superbike bar. I'm used to it and I like it. The classic riding position on the Blast felt strange at first, but it's comfortable, relaxed and natural, and it was easy to get used to. It's fine for casual motoring around, and workable if not ideal for more active riding. To a man, and woman, new riders insist on it. In almost all road situations I could adapt to it well enough. For washboard dirt roads, I slid forward, up against the tank, to get my weight more over the pegs and midway between the axles to lessen the bumps. That position also gave a good leg-lock on the tank, and I do believe the tank was shaped with that in mind. For all-day riding, up to 450 miles on back roads, I was comfortable with the touring bag for a backrest; but standing on the pegs at speed is a clumsy maneuver, so I couldn't stretch or take the weight off without stopping. I eventually realized I was supposed to be relaxing and having fun, so I got in the habit of finding beautiful places to stop. Good idea. The only situation that had me cussing was headwinds. Getting down on the tank was like bending over to tie shoes, and doing a long haul into a 40 mph wind was work. But that only accounted for 55 miles out of 3,000. For all the rest of the riding, the "conventional" position was acceptable.

Style and Finish - The Blast is an original classic, and it always looked good to me in any situation, always ready to roll in style. A lot of other people thought so, too - the bike got attention and compliments everywhere. The Surlyn bodywork gives it the glossy black look of a classic Bugatti or Jaguar. It's cool, and classy, and it's tough - I put the bike through some pretty rough riding without leaving a mark on it. Keeping it sharp was a snap - five minutes with spray detergent and a hose, and five minutes with a damp sponge and a chamois to bring the gloss back up. The vinyl seat cover looked and felt like fine leather, and stood up to my boot-dragging dismounts without wearing. The look, the sound, the performance all add up. So far it looks good.

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joe@gazette9.com

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