The 4 best urban street bikes today

23rd July 2018
Roland Brown

Motorcycling’s most vibrant sector is arguably the cool urban scene centred on the Bike Shed in east London, whose biggest yet custom show last month featured a huge variety of hand-built machines. Several major manufacturers have leapt on the bandwagon, creating retro-themed production models with potential for easy customisation, or a fresh take on the traditional café racer. These are four of the best.


Ducati Scrambler 1100 Special

The 1100 Special adds glitz and versatility to the Scrambler family that has become a hipster favourite since the original, 803cc V-twin was launched in 2015. The Special’s 1,079cc, aircooled engine is based on an old Monster unit, detuned to give a modest 84bhp with soft, rider-friendly delivery. Traditional Ducati steel frame tubes combine with a new aluminium rear subframe. Aluminium mudguards and petrol tank side-pieces, wire-spoked wheels and a brown seat add to the visual effect.

Performance is restrained by big Ducati standards but the Special has plenty of low-rev punch, and cruises with long-legged feel and a throaty exhaust bark. Wide, raised bars allow reasonably agile handling despite lazy steering geometry. Twin front discs with Brembo monobloc calipers give powerful braking, and there’s some carefully concealed modern tech here too, including cornering ABS and traction control.

Many Ducati enthusiasts would be better off on the Monster 821, which is quicker and less expensive than the £11,495 Special. (There’s also a basic Scrambler 1100, at £10,695; and a Scrambler 1100 Sport, featuring Öhlins suspension, at £12,295.) But the Scrambler 1100 Special’s cool looks and effortless performance combine to make a classy machine that is equally at home on Shoreditch High Street or a twisty road in the hills.


Husqvarna Vitpilen 701

The striking Vitpilen – “White Arrow” in Husqvarna’s native Swedish – is a café-racer that spearheads the marque’s attack on the streetbike market, following its takeover by Austrian giant KTM. Borrowing its 693cc, dohc single-cylinder engine and tubular steel-framed chassis from KTM’s 690 Duke roadster, the Vitpilen goes dramatically its own way with aggressive, über-cool looks incorporating low, clip-on bars and innovative detailing.

Maximum output is unchanged at 75bhp: sufficient for lively acceleration from a bike that weighs less than 160kg with its tank brim-full. Especially as the Vitpilen’s six-speed gearbox incorporates a quick-shifter for both up- and down-changes. Handling is superb: stable yet, with only a single disc up front, wonderfully agile and precise, at the expense of some stopping power.

Those clip-on bars soon get uncomfortable in the café racer’s urban heartland, and at £8,899 it’s not cheap (costing more than KTM’s sophisticated new 790 Duke twin). But the Vitpilen is entertaining and more versatile than it looks, and gets Husqvarna’s streetbike challenge off to a stylish start.


Harley-Davidson Street Bob

Harleys have been a custom mainstay for so long that they hardly fit into the new-wave urban scene, but there’s no denying the Street Bob’s visual presence. Or, when you ride it, the blend of straight-line punch and improbably sweet handling that make this entry-level model arguably the pick of the Milwaukee marque’s recently revamped Softail family.

The Street Bob looks like a traditional Harley cruiser, matching its big 1,745cc, aircooled V-twin engine with high bars, a low single saddle and kicked-out front forks holding a narrow, large-diameter wheel. But its crisp low-rev performance is matched by smoothness at cruising speeds. And although its dry weight of 286kg is light only by Harley standards, it steers accurately and even corners respectably hard, its only real chassis flaw a single-disc front brake that requires a firm squeeze of the lever to generate serious stopping power.

This is a bike that at first glance looks like something straight out of a Seventies movie, but which goes, handles and looks after its rider as a modern motorbike should. Even its wind-blown riding position is reasonably comfortable, helped by compliant suspension. If you’ve ever fancied a Harley-Davidson cruiser but thought it would be too different to a “normal” bike, a ride on the Street Bob, which costs from £12,295, might prove a revelation.


BMW R nineT Racer

There is something curiously appealing about a café racer powered by BMW’s classical boxer engine. That’s why countless customisers, from professional firms to shed-based amateurs, have built one-off bikes to that format in recent years. And it’s why BMW developed the Racer, based on the R nineT retro-roadster that has been a big hit since its launch in 2014.

Like that R nineT and its other derivatives (the basic Pure and enduro-styled Urban G/S), the Racer uses the aircooled, 1170cc boxer engine that powered the R1200GS before that model’s switch to liquid-cooling. It differs from the original R nineT by having a more basic chassis with less expensive suspension and brakes. Key features are the sporty half-fairing and seat hump – finished in traditional Motorsport white/blue/red – plus low bars and rearset footrests.

The stretched-out riding position puts weight on the rider’s wrists, making low-speed manoeuvring hard work. But the Racer makes more sense the faster it goes. Its 109bhp boxer motor is torquey and respectably smooth, handling is stable, and the suspension is sufficiently firm to keep good control. On the right road the Racer is quick, characterful and fun to ride. And at £10,900 it’s a lot less hassle than building a boxer café racer yourself.

  • Ducati

  • Scrambler

  • BMW

  • R nineT

  • Husqvarna

  • Vitpilen

  • Harley

  • Street Bob

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